Opinion: Why Microsoft Is The Most Exciting Company In Tech Right Now

I never thought I'd ever hear myself utter such words post-1995. But after Monday's reveal of the Surface tablet — complete with an ultra-thin, pressure-sensitive keyboard cover and the most discrete integrated kickstand ever — and yesterday's Windows Phone 8 announcement, I'm a believer that Microsoft is the most innovative consumer tech company right now.

And it isn't just this week's announcements that did it. This has been building all year. There's Windows 8, Xbox Live, Skydrive, Kinect, SmartGlass; even Hotmail stepped up its game. The Surface, and now Windows Phone 8, merely feel like the culmination — or maybe the fulfilment — of what Microsoft has been poking and prodding at for the past six years when it first introduced the Xbox 360.

Microsoft is a company reborn. It's not just significant because of past achievements. Microsoft is exciting again because of what it's doing right now.

When I first laid hands on Windows 8 and slid my fingers across the Metro interface in February, it all felt too good to be true. Smooth, fast, intuitive. I liked Windows 7 and its new features just fine, but it was just another rung on the same tired old ladder. Windows 8? Totally new.

Microsoft used to be content with functioning as the backbone of the corporate world in the '90s, bringing us such wonderful abominations as Internet Explorer 6, Outlook, Windows Mobile, and, of course, Windows Vista (which was more annoying than terrible). Sure, those products had every feature under the sun, but each required a PhD to use fully.

But somewhere between the launch of the Xbox 360 and the release of Vista, Microsoft started to approach design — industrial, UI and UX — with genuine interest, instead of treating it as an obligation. The first real evidence of this shift presented itself — believe it or not — in the form of the Zune. It was better than the iPod classic. Much better. Sadly it was stuck fighting a battle that nobody at the time could have won, in a product category that was already well on its way to irrelevance. But its swan song, the Zune HD, offered a glimpse of hope that Microsoft could deliver a mobile experience to rival that of Apple. And with Windows Phone 7, it did just that.

These products led to the biggest evolution inside Microsoft: creating a unified, consistent design — and now, programming — language across all their consumer-facing products. You notice this right away with Windows Phone, Windows 8, and most recently, Xbox, each a gorgeous panoply of animated live tiles thick with information. But that DNA is also present in other products, even boring ones like Office. The beautiful tiled homescreens, the seamless, yet multi-paned, app interfaces. The little things, like transitional animations. It all adds up to something inviting. No scratch that, it's damn near seductive.

Looks aside, there's the feeling that this change is coming from a new core philosophy and not just blind trend-chasing by a pack of suits. Microsoft is embracing ideas as much as statistics. In the past, the company stuck to empirical data for its decision making. It was stubborn so as not to alienate its primary user base, and its attempts to implement new concepts resulted in ghastly creations better suited for a Mary Shelly novel.

Today, however, there's a certain nimbleness to the company. Sure, it still believes in the power of user research, but ot has stopped trying to cram as many features and functions as it possibly can into every screen and menu. It has started evaluating what information is actually important, and how to make accessing that info as easy as possible. It is willing to revamp and redesign if something isn't working. The tough decision to rework the underlying code of Windows Phone — making all existing phones unable to be updated — is a shining example of the new Microsoft. Redmond's willing to implement unpopular, slightly disruptive features for a better long-term future.

Even more crucially, Microsoft has been improving on existing ideas, rather than just making competent facsimiles. SmartGlass is AirPlay without the fiercely guarded ecosystem. Windows Phone 8's Wallet looks like the precocious lovechild of Google Wallet and Apple's Passbook. The keyboard cover on Surface may have finally cracked the tablet input puzzle.

Is it possible that Microsoft hits a wall and falls just short of excellence? Absolutely. Windows Phone is still in dire need of apps, and we're still only playing with an incomplete version of Windows 8. The Metro UI will serve as the foundation of Windows in the future, but for now it's mostly just a top layer on Windows 8's more conventional underpinnings. Surface might be the most exciting new hardware of the year, but there's no way around the fact that it's two years behind the iPad. And the prominent spec schism between its two models shows that Microsoft still can't resist the allure of trying to appease every customer it possibly can. And let us not forget the Kin.

But for the first time in a long time, I at least have faith that Microsoft can get it right. That's more than I can say for most companies.


Comments

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

      Well that was constructive. I'm sure the author is very appreciate of your comments and will ensure to put less smelly pew pew in future articles.

      I'm sure there's an Apple only tech news site somewhere that would suit you just fine. Unless it's reading about industry trends that's too highbrow for you and you just need pretty pictures.

      What do you base that on? Seriously? The authors contention in the article was that Microsoft are taking a new approach to the way they design and build software and devices. The author gave several real life examples of how Microsoft are doing this. It was a good article - possibly let down slightly by a lack of proof reading but otherwise perfectly reasonable and informative.

      I think the article is valid. It finally looks like Microsoft is doing something new and exciting imo

    I too am excited, but let's wait until these products are available, as it's easy to be innovative without inspection and scrutiny. The ideas seem sound, the devil, as always, is in the detail.

      Amen. Witness today's revelation that the wonderful new Surface tablet will be wifi only.

      Next up, someone will actually get to use its miraculous new keyboard and discover it's crap.

      Sorry, but I've seen this movie a hundred times, and it always ends the same.

    Definitely excited for MS's upcoming product lines. The Surface looks like the tablet to beat, but I remember being this pumped for WP7 the first time around and in hindsight I'm glad I had the self-control to wait and see... Let's hope WP8/W8 is the fresh start that works.

      I'm out of contract on my phone, and I was considering picking up a Titan or Lumia 900 as a replacement, but I thought I'd hold off till they announce what was happening with WP8.

      Glad I did.

        Lumia 900 will not be getting the windows 8 update... there is an article on here about all legacy phone only getting the 7.8 update but not the 8... Sorry dude :(

          That's the point Al, now Si knows NOT to get the 900 but to wait for the next gen of hardware. I'm in exactly the same boat... god it was hard resisting that sexy 900 hardware, but so glad I did.

          Here's hoping Nokia continues with the beautiful hardware with WP8, somehow I doubt that's a concern though :)

          (side note and personal wish list: the 900 with the 800's curved screen, the Titan II's camera, 720p resolution, removable SD card and NFC. Come on Nokia... you can doooo iiiiit!!!)

    so let me get this straight... you're saying that Microsoft is doing better now that they're dumbing down their products so the Lowest Common Denominator can use them easily at the expense of functionality for those who are not the aforementioned denominator?

    Just to be clear, I'm not hating on Microsoft here, I'm still undecided about Windows 8, but am absolutely sold on the Surface and Windows Phone 8. I'm just questioning the assumptions and assertions in this article.

      "you’re saying that Microsoft is doing better now that they’re dumbing down their products so the Lowest Common Denominator can use them easily at the expense of functionality for those who are not the aforementioned denominator?"

      This is basically what Apple did with the iPad.

      The difference is that Microsoft is also providing options for those that are not the aforementioned denominator

      Win 8 is still a full desktop operating system under the hood (except Win RT of course)

        So are Apple. It's called OSX.

          I'll just be over here laughing at you... don't mind me

            Don't worry, you didn't actually try and engage in any sort of discussion so I won't.

          Yes because OSX is a unified operating system that Apple has on their tablets and PCs....

          Oh wait.

            And Windows RT isn't either. What's your point?

              Windows RT at least uses a unified interface with the other Windows 8 products

              If you buy a metro app for a Windows RT device you can use it within the metro environment on a Windows 8 Pro machine. Last time I checked you can't run any iOS apps on OSX

                What you need to understand is that BenDTU is an iOS developer. Windows 8 and hybrid devices create a world where the iPad is simply not necessary. Of course he will be defensive, dismissive, fearful.. and all of the other emotions that lead to acceptance.

                One device that replaces the need for having both a laptop and a tablet is a really easy sell. Even if $600, Surface represents a convenience and value proposition that cannot be met in the Apple device ecosystem. At $800-$1000 for a Surface Pro or laptop hybrid device, the laptop as it exists today has no real argument to exist either.

                  Uh, yeah I'm not an iOS developer. I'm a Windows developer. I'm just less than enthusiastic about Microsoft's consumer offerings.

              How about, the pro version is still a tablet, and it is a unified OS and full PC. How's that for a point? Or are you going to complain about an extra <4mm depth?

        "this is basically what Apple did with the iPad"

        very true... which is exactly why I have never owned, nor do I ever want to own an iPad.

          This is pretty much why I'm interested in the Surface Pro, It has all the tablety goodness that the kids are crazy about these days. But is also a full Intel PC under the hood, which means I can use all my non tablety stuff on it too

            Yeah, I agree. I wonder why some peoopel think that's a mistake. Maybe MS should brand them a bit more distinctly. Just saying one's RT and one's Pro isn't enough I guess. Maybe say one is Intel and the other is ARM, maybe that will get people more aware of the fact there are some differences.

      How are MS doing that? There is not feature in Win7 that is not also in Win8, but there is a ton of stuff in Win8 that is not in Win7, so realistically, MS are making Win8 more complex, not dumbing it down.

    Microsoft has always had the pieces to the puzzle, the edges though being a little rough, but they've never been able to put the puzzle together. Rather than build to make several unrelated puzzles, MS is now building up one, big complete puzzle, and here's hoping, it'll be nice when complete.

      This is a fair comment. They did indeed. They had some great pieces, they took a look at apples solution, said 'hey we have better pieces, we can use your method and put them together in a better way!' and voila...

      I think part of the issue is that they were under a lot of anti-trust scrutiny. They couldn't create a single full featured ecosystem because they simply weren't allowed to.

        Microsoft ignored most anti-trust rulings when they wanted to.

        So that's not the reason they ''didn't put the puzzle together''.

    I like that having 100000 apps is considered being short of apps.

    When it's compared to the amount on ios and android it is lower, but it's by no means short on apps

      a lot of those "apps" on the Android and Apple Market Place are pretty much all doubled or Tripled up. I like the idea that M$ is being selective to a degree with their apps. Android let's almost anything in to their market (example: a lot of malware) and Apple removes and even steals apps from the market and then advertise them as their own. M$ doesn't seem to be doing that and that's a good thing if all true.

      WP7 has about the same good apps: fluff ratio as the rest, so 100,000 means that it's still missing a lot of core apps. Pandora, Dropbox, the Instagram/Paper are notably absent and the Zynga games (Words, Draw Something) aren't confirmed to be WP7 titles or if they're just going straight to WP8. Then there are issues like the official Twitter client not having been updated since 2010 (and at this stage, probably never will be). I'd happily trade half the 100,000 apps if those core apps were brought to iOS/Android parity.

        The official Twitter app is crappy anyway, but you have plenty of other options such as Ocell which is a nice free app, or gleek which is a really good paid one, not to mention twitter support built into the OS

        Some of the core apps haven't come to WP yet, but that is the fault of the companies themselves. And some of them have quite good alternatives anyway, Wordfeud is a great Words with Friends alternative (I love the random bonus tile option in it) and it's multiplatform.

        And people still play draw something? zing!

        most of the good apps are on there and if they arent its because there is a win equivalent that may be better. Ios people always brad that they have like 500,000 apps but the fact is most people probs only use a common pool of about 5000.

          Not to mention all of the apps that are like this "App name" and "App name free"

          I know this still happens on WP but there are a lot of apps that use the trial mode system

            Yeah, trial mode is killer. Still can't believe APple hasn't copied it

        Twitter is built into the OS at a base level...why on earth would you use an app...that is ridiculous.

      For me the issue wasn't about the number of apps, it was the quality of the apps and the fact that the other platform constantly get apps quicker.

      This article sums up the issue pretty well...
      http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2012/06/the-tech-behind-the-big-w-toy-sale-private-cloud-qr-codes-ios-and-crossed-fingers/

      "An Android version is in active development and should appear before the end of the year"
      "For other platforms, Fakira says a general HTML5 site is the option beging explored."

        That actually explains precisely why I have very little interest in apps. e.g. m.ebay.com.au is much better than the US-centric eBay app and www.131500.com is still head and shoulders better than any public transport app I have seen on any platform. To me a lot of apps seem like neutered versions of websites, almost always with less functionality. There are some that take full advantage of the platform, position-aware stuff like Kayak, for example, but a lot of them are just marketing tools that don't improve on the website experience in any way. I think it is basically a con.

      MDolly - Your comments are always spot on mate!

        was supposed to go on your previous comment. Giz... there is a bug here.

      But then also, who really is going to give a rats ass about apps when you can have full blown APPLICATIONS running on a device that is the bridge between the laptop and tablet? Truely awesome

    For me, the turn-around started the day I first saw the Arc Mouse. I had to have one immediately and it turned out to be far and away the best laptop mouse of all time, until the even more gorgeous Arc Touch Mouse. Then I discovered ZuneHD, which is still my favourite gadget after two years of ownership. It is a music ecosystem that feels like it was created by someone with as deep a passion for music as I have. Unlike other music management software, starting up the Zune software is like walking into Phantom Records used to be in 1980 and when it goes into play mode, I get a plethora of album covers that reminds me of my bedroom walls during my late teens or the way we used to plaster the walls with record covers in the early days of Retro. Zune is the only ecosystem that comes close toe offering everything you get from your record or CD collection. It is absolutely brilliant and from the day I installed the application on my PC, my view of Microsoft was completely changed.

    This week's announcements have been incredible for their media impact, if nothing else. Just a week after Apple's big announcements they have taken the limelight from them completely. They even managed to build some anticipation and speculation about their announcements and, where some of Apple's announcements over the past year or so have fallen short of expectations, MS seem to have exceeded them. Its like the Bizzaro World.

      +1 for MotorMouth and the ZuneHD was a great product

      Apple had an announcement last week?

      Completely agree with you on the Arc Mouse. It really is an amazing device not to mention beautiful as hell, lol

    TL;DR: Microsoft is the most exciting company right now because we haven't been banned from going to their press events yet.

      we should file this comment on twitter with #ILoveMacAndAnythingElseIsWrong

        If you want. Last I checked I didn't actually own a Mac.

          would #ILoveAppleAndAnythingElseIsWrong suit?

    Only people that enjoy using computers for their own sake use phrases like 'dumbing down' and 'lowest common denominator'. You are like people who are really into cars dissing Toyota for making cars that dont let you adjust the variable valve timing when you're popping down to the shops.

      So, what's wrong with that?

    Whilst I'm a fan of these efforts...

    I'm a bit bemused that it took J Allard resigning to bring about the mindset he was brought in to engineer.

    "These products led to the biggest evolution inside Microsoft: creating a unified, consistent design — and now, programming — language across all their consumer-facing products"

    Wait, what?

    C# has been Microsoft's everywhere language since like... Forever. And you still can't "Write once, run everywhere", so what has actually changed here?

      Wait, what?

      I thought it was "TL;DR"?

        I don't ever remember C# being called a "Write once, run everywhere" language

          It's not, but It's pretty clear that's where Microsoft would like to be with it eventually. Really not sure what it was that the article was referring to there. Shared APIs perhaps?

            Actually, Microsoft has stated that HTML5 and Java are the future and will be essential for web enabled applications on their platform going forward.

        careful mate - you'll make him look bad

      Clearly the article is written from a user's perspective, not a developer. I don't even know what C looks like, let alone what it does.

        C looks like 'C', and it helps you create words like 'cat', 'clever' and 'close' - that is what it does.

        The more you know!

          But its so much more than that!!!!!

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C_%28disambiguation%29

    I think what Microsoft is doing is great, don't get me wrong. But I am still not understanding the Surface Pro. The Surface Pro is just a small ultra book with a touch screen and a compromised keyboard. If Microsoft some how can price the Surface Pro cheaper than any ultra book, get the same power as and ultra book and the same battery life as an ultra book then I can understand it somewhat. The Surface with Windows RT is great and strong competition against the iPad.

      The Surface pro is pretty much what is currently called a slate, which is basically a tablet crossed with an ultrabook.

      The idea I think is that if you want a tablet and an ultrabook, the Surface pro will fill both roles.

        Si, I understand that, but aren't you just sacrificing certain benefits of a tablet and ultra book for tablet/ultra book combo. Unless, the cost benefit of the Surface Pro is greater than a ultra book and tablet combo. If I can have a lightweight 7"-10" Windows RT tablet and a 13"-15" ultra book for the same price I still don't see the benefit of the Surface Pro. Personally I think the Windows RT Surface is/will be the best tablet on the market at release of Windows 8.

          The only way the combo would be the same price is if the Surface Pro costs about $1200-1500. Right now even cheap Ultrabooks costs 800+. Factor in likely price of Surface RT of $500.

          MS said Surface Pro will be priced similarly to ultrabooks, so likely 800-1000, buy the keyboard accessory (my estimate of 100-200, won't be cheap I think), and I'd rather have this one device to carry around than two.

          Also, in a few year's time, smartphones will be powerful enough to carry around like a personal computer too, and MS has set itself up to take advantage of it nicely. Envisioned by Atrix, smartphones will plug into dumb monitors and work like PC's in the future.

            Why would the covers cost so much? MS have been making innovative keyboards for years and none of them cost anything like $200. The Touch cover has no moving parts, so it will probably be very cheap to manufacture, and the Type Cover shouldn't be any more expensive to produce than my Arc Keyboard, which is less than $50 at JB Hi-Fi (with MS's current cashback offer).

          Well I agree with you on the last point, partly due to the fact that the Pro wont be out for 3 months after the RT Surface.

          The Pro will be priced "competitively" with ultrabooks, I would guess/hope that it will be slightly cheaper due to the smaller screen than the average ultrabooks. But for that you get the full tablet experience as well as the power of an ultrabook. If you can afford to get both a tablet and an ultrabook, then that may be better, But to get the best of both worlds for around the same price as an ultrabook. I think that will appeal to a lot of people

            I suppose for the non professionals where this will be their sole computer/tablet it may be a good option.

              The Pro is this to me:

              Lying in bed, reading my RSS feeds on a tablet. Check.

              In a Uni lecture using the REAL versions of Word and Excel with a keyboard that looks to be much better implemented than the Asus Transformer, so I can be much more productive. Check.

              Come home to my desk, chuck it in a docking station and I suddenly can use my full, proper wireless keyboard and mouse, and large external monitor. Check.

              That's pretty epic for me. Can't wait to sell my 17" laptop and 10" Transformer to get the above setup. One PC for me, everywhere.

              This is the future. Granted, not as functional as an actual Ultrabook, and doubt it ever could be, just from physical restrictions. But for your average joe? Heck yes. Take my monies!!! Was looking forward to this ever since seeing what Win8 had in store, and pretty excited to see MS come out and offer such compelling hardware off their own back.

                This guy gets it. The Pro version is a scalable device. It can be a simple tablet with touch friendly apps, it can be a portable windows machine, and it can also scale up to a 26 full HD monitor when docked.

                I was intiially pretty excited about thus, but then I realised the keyboard just doesn't look that workable. I don's see how you could use the keyboard on an air plane or uni desk. Their both too small to use the back rest. I assume it can't hold itself up without the rest. This is a big problem for enterprise. No way my employer is going to buy me one of these if I can't use it on a plane.

                Couldn't have put it any better. as a creative professional i cannot wait to have the pro. the ability to run adobe products and make changes to anything i had been working on during the day while on my train ride home, then flip into tablet mode and enjoy games and learning apps with my kids when i get home..on the one device..pure gold.

    After adapting the iPad 1 into my engineering business and watching others integrate the iPad into their business I have notice and learnt one thing. Most people don't use the tablet in the same way as they use their computers, the tablet is better at some task than a full computer and the other way around. To be honest when I first saw the iPad and it's resemblance to a large iPod I was disappointed. But I understand that this is the reason behind it's success. It was affordable, simple to use and convenient for achieving simple tasks on the go. But most of all it's success is due to the app developer who turned the big iPod touch into a notebook, a library, and instrument, the list goes on. My point is I am excited about Windows RT and where Microsoft and the developers will take it. I think for some time the full computer experience with a external keyboard, mouse and monitor will be the most productive and ergonomic way to create for most businesses.

      Exactly. The most important reason why iPad has succeeded, despite its faults, is its form factor. Its slimness and light weight makes it a breeze to carry around. MS is promising the same form factor, but with the power of the laptop/desktop you're using now. If conosumers don't go crazy for it, at least businesses should see the incredible value proposition, especially if their workforce is a highly mobile one, e.g. sales staff, support staff, consultants, inspectors, warehouse managers.

        I meant to say despite its shortcomings

        I don't quite get this. An iPad is no easier to carry around than a laptop. It is too big to put in your pocket, so you need to carry it in a bag. Once you need to carry a bag, you may as well carry your laptop and be done with it.

    I havent read a single thing in this article yet, or the comments, but my opinion is when I see Microsoft these days I see colour, vibrancy and life.
    When I see Apple I see grey. Flat grey. Or maybe a grey with a gradient tone through it.

    Some people are easily impressed it seems. How long has it taken MS to come to the party? Maybe if they were leaders not followers I'd be impressed. WP8 looks nice, but if I don't have the freedom I do with Android I don't care how good it is.

      Microsoft... followers?? Paaaahlease! That's why their software is the most popular in the world, because they're followers. If you actually bothered to do any research, you'd know that Bill Gates championed the tablet in 2002, in one of those "too far ahead of it's time to make functional sense" scenarios. You sir, are ignorant and clearly ignoring a multitude of proof that completely refute your silly statement.

      My only concern for Windows 8 RT is that Windows users want Windows 8 RT to be as open as Windows 8, they don't want another iPad. Not sure what strategy Microsoft is taking with RT.

      "Maybe if they were leaders not followers"
      lol ok

      First: late to the party doesn't mean the product isn't any good.

      Second: they're not simply following what Google and Apple have done. They're making their own beast, and it's beautiful, informative, and a pleasure to use.

      Third: Customisability and freedom are your thing; that's fine, Android for you. But that's not the most important thing for everyone. Different strokes, different folks...

    Let's reconvene on the 22nd of June 2013 for a good belly laugh about Microsoft's last roll of the dice to remain relevant. I wouldn't expect Balmer to survive this failure either. :)

    As much as Apple Fans might disagree, I think Apple are working on the same strategy if you look at OSX Mountain Lion. For example take Launchpad which is a iOS type application launcher. Apple might for example make Launchpad into an iOS simulator the same way Microsoft have done with Metro that functions onto of the existing desktop ecosystem. I think Apple may be waiting for technology to catch up so that they can fit the full os into a device with the same form factor and battery life as the iPad, where as Microsoft may only be offering 5 hours out of the Surface Pro on a divide thicker than the Surface RT.

    Additional to what I have said above, as technology moves forward and ultra book become lighter and have longer battery life so will tablets. So I think there is still some life for mobile OS's on ARM tablets until technology reaches some sort of saturation where size is no longer relates to power.

    you guys really pissed of MG Siegler of techcrunch, look
    http://massivegreatness.com/apple-sucks-because-we-have-no-access

    well done gizmodo, i'm a fan now

      Not sure which site Siegler is reading, but I think Giz has gone from ridiculously pro-Apple to something which is reasonably balanced, but certainly not anti-Apple.

    Microsoft has had tablets for a decade and they have been a failure. The Surface is a confused hardware mashup that impacts on their OEMs. RT Windows just adds to the confusion. No 3G or 4G? What are they thinking? It's a mess., Microsoft just can't execute with the precision of Apple.

      And I guess the 4G label Apple slapped on their "New" iPad and had to remove it because they did it to fool the customers and ultimately were fined for it is "precision"?

      Apple indeed.

    I just installed the w8 consumer preview. Have to say, it's gonna be a tough sell. Navigation is utterly painful on my laptop touchpad, and given that most touchpads are just as average I can't imagine it getting any better. Anything that isn't a tablet will suffer with this release, and I think we will see a lot of hardware returns or a w7 downgrade option. If they just kept rt to the tablets it would be great and then work out how to integrate those apps into the normal desktop environment with windows etc it would be fine. but as it stands, not gonna cut it. This is definitely an awkward halfway house OS ATM. Ms is being quite the exciting tech company right now, but It seems the idea is half baked.

      So click on the DESKTOP tile and use it exactly as you do Win7. How is that such a massive problem for anyone? I can' t believe sheeple are so stupid as to be dazzled by the Start Screen.

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