Microsoft At 40: Still Turning It The Fuck Around

Microsoft at 40: Still Turning It the Fuck Around

Tomorrow is Microsoft's 40th birthday, and the perfect time to look back on its successes, failings, and that time it bought a convertible in its thirties because it was freaking out about a receding hairline.

Over those 40 years there have been countless twists and turns but now -- right now -- Microsoft is in the process of rejuvenating itself yet again, and swinging back from Windows 8 apathy and Xbox One PR disasters. Not bad for a geezer.

Microsoft Is Really Turning It the Fuck Around

It's tempting to think of Microsoft as some ageing dinosaur. But it's wrong. Change has been building for almost a year now. Yes Windows 8 was a mess, and the Xbox One's early days were embarrassing, but Microsoft's been sharpening its game with impressive speed. And now it is once again, hands down, the most exciting company in tech.

You've no doubt heard about the biggest beats in Microsoft's recent turn-around story. The Xbox One one is hella cheap and Kinect-free. Windows 10 is bringing back the Start Menu for real. There's a wacky faceputer on the horizon. And more recently Microsoft has been snapping up some great apps. These aren't flukes, or just lucky shots in the dark. This is the crack of a well-aimed and confident swing for the fences.

After years of slipping and staggering with Surface and Windows 8 and Xbox One, Microsoft is really turning it the fuck around.

Windows 8 was the future no one wanted

Back in 2012, when we were on the verge of Windows 8 and flashy new Surface tablets, Microsoft was leaning into an catch-up obsession with being the future. The desktop giant had already mostly missed the boat on phones; Windows Phone 7 was reasonably competent, but it was only a shaky first step compared to far more established competitors. Microsoft wasn't about to make the same mistake again with Windows 8. So in a bid to compensate, it proceeded to start making a different mistake, over and over: Using sheer force of will to become the Next Big Thing... that no one was asking for.

I mean just look at Windows 8. It wasn't total garbage, but it didn't reflect how people were using their Windows devices; it dictated how Microsoft thought they should. Microsoft handed down its vision of the PC of tomorrow, covered in touchscreens and powered by Metro apps that maybe didn't all quite exist yet. Instead of luring users in, letting us slowly and voluntarily trade away familiar Start Menus and windows in favour of something new and exciting, it just sort of dragged us all kicking and screaming to a half-baked endgame without so much as a tutorial. Future's here, kids. Because I said so, that's why.

Then, in the face of backlash from users who were quite literally getting trapped inside Windows 8's new Metro apps, Microsoft laid down an even bigger slice of its blissfully arrogant and aggro future: The Xbox One.

It will be the center of your home, Microsoft said. It will replace your cable box. It will have a mandatory camera. It will require a constant internet connection and might not play used games. But hey, these changes were just the cost of moving forward, Microsoft (half-assedly) explained. This is the price you pay for a disc-less, hands-free future with voice commands and gesture controls and shareable digital games (whether you want it or not). Meanwhile, over here in the real world, when Sony announced the PS4 would stick to the status quo on used games at E3, it was greeted with literal cheers.

And all the while, Microsoft's ambitious tablet-computer hybrids lurched on to no real success. The disappointing Surface RT was born with a foot in the grave, while the (genuinely interesting!) Surface Pro was proving a little too strange and too future to hit its mark. Yet another two products that suffered from an excess of vision and lack of grounding.

Still, it's easy to see how Microsoft got swept up in the grand ideas of the future it was trying so hard to hock. And how it was easy for us tech nerds to get swept up in an idealistic future that all the normals were just too damn scared to accept and to lament Microsoft's inevitable, necessary, but profoundly defeated reversals. Microsoft's visions were all so tidy and exciting, in theory.

In practice, it was all one big clusterfuck.

Live and learn to cut your losses

Just after the Xbox One DRM flip flop, Microsoft made a big change -- not to its products or software, mind you, but to how the company itself was run. Then-CEO Steve Ballmer completely up-ended Microsoft's historically bellicose hierarchy, one in which many of the company's internal teams -- sometimes working on the same product across different platforms -- were directly at odds and in active competition. It had grown counterproductive to the point of parody, which is dangerous in a world where Microsoft couldn't rest on its laurels. This new Microsoft, One Microsoft, would work together for once. It would have to.

Microsoft Is Really Turning It the Fuck Around

Microsoft's old org chart, according to Bonkers World.

Throughout the transition, Microsoft tossed and turned in the bed it had made for itself. The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 both came out, both better but not particularly different from their awkward predecessors. It bought Nokia for reasons that still aren't particularly clear. It dripped out two free upgrades for Windows 8, ones that made it an ever-so-slightly more welcoming experience for mouse and keyboard users. Minor improvements, sure. But small steps in the right direction.

Then in February of 2014, Ballmer stepped down from his post at Microsoft, making room for new CEO Satya Nadella, a cool-headed engineer who cut his teeth in Microsoft's enterprise wing -- the Yin to Ballmer's highly GIFable Yang. And the real, tangible changes started to... Surface™.

In May, Xbox suddenly dropped the paywall for Netflix and streaming apps, axing a long-time gripe of casual gamers everywhere. What's more, the Xbox One finally became available to purchase without a Kinect -- a choice I (foolishly) decried back then, but that makes cold, pragmatic sense in hindsight. These were the first hints of a new Microsoft, one that would cut its losses with an almost gleeful ferocity.

Remember the rumoured Surface Mini? Yet another version of a failing, flailing Windows RT tablet no one wanted, in a size that (at least now) is pretty clearly on its way out. CUT! By all accounts righteously smote by Nadella at the 11th hour, who also dealt a soon-fatal blow to the failing Windows RT.

Instead we got the Surface Pro 3 -- a new, surprisingly handsome, version of the only truly interesting Surface. Microsoft's doomed dick-measuring competition with the ubiquitious iPad? CUT! The Surface Pro 3 instead took aim at woefully out of date MacBook Air with an impressive and pragmatic laser focus.

It all built to a righteous crescendo with Windows 10, which viciously cut the last unpleasant tethers to the failed Window 8 experiment, while still managing to not actually take a step backwards. For starters Windows 10 is Windows 10 -- because fuck Windows 8. It's exactly what so many of us needed to hear. That, combined with the triumphant return of the Start Menu and a Metro mode that is present but completely optional, makes the upcoming OS exactly what everyone has been wanting and asking for. It's a stark and welcome contrast of the take-it-or-leave-it-(lol-OK-we'll-leave-it!) gauntlet thrown down by Windows 8.

On top of that, it's free! For ages, Windows has been one of Microsoft's main money-makers. So while it might make all the sense in the world for Apple to offer up OS X as a gift, for Microsoft it's a serious shift and a big bet that it's learned from its mistakes.

But most important, Microsoft's new Windows Insider program -- in which just about anyone can use Windows 10 early and is encouraged to give feedback -- is letting actual work-a-day Windows users have a say. Microsoft has learned from Windows 8 and Xbox One that legions of loud, shouty users need to get their way. And by bringing them into the fold from the start instead of pissing them off and flopping around, Microsoft is making their collective cries a strength, instead of a weakness.

Microsoft is becoming so much more than just Windows

But Microsoft's big turn has been so much more than abandoning sinking side-projects. The ever more cloud-focused giant has leapt to make itself a force outside of Windows and Windows Phone and Xbox with a series of whipsmart acquisitions.

It started with Mojang -- the Minecraft juggernaut -- in which Microsoft snapped up a fiercely devoted and tech-savvy world of youngsters that it never could have cultivated on its own. It's a super valuable asset (so long as it doesn't blow it all up with an Xbox-exclusive Minecraft 2 or something). And though Minecraft runs on Playstations and Macs and Linux boxes alike, this new Microsoft is way smarter than to shut that down.

In fact, it's smart enough to be branching out elsewhere as well. Microsoft is routinely putting out launchers for Android and some of the most awesome completely cross-platform apps you can find. Outlook is arguably the best app for Gmail on iPhone. Just think about that for a second.

If you've ever watched a livestream of a Microsoft event (nerd), you know Satya Nadella's "Mobile-first, cloud-first" mantra. In real talk, that means Microsoft wants to be making the best apps and services on the devices you're already using. And when they can't do it themselves, they will buy the people who can. Microsoft bought the fantastic mail app Accompli in December, and the fantastic results showed up in January. A week ago it bought the fantastic calendar app Sunrise. You can probably see where this is going.

Microsoft Is Really Turning It the Fuck Around

Old Accompli and new Outlook side by side.

The ultimate end-game? Who knows, but it's a damn sight better for all of us than if Microsoft was aiming the brunt of its phone firepower at Windows Phone or something, and the full force of its services catering to Microsoft-only fanboys. We all get better services and the benefits of more competition. Rumour has it that the new Galaxy S6 might come with (terrific) Microsoft services instead of (horrible) Samsung bloat. Maybe, just maybe, Cortana and Google Now wind up as competing choices on the same phone. At this rate, it's possible. And it would be great for everyone if it happened.

And that's to say nothing of the further off future. Microsoft just dumped a ton of money into Cyanogenmod, the most well-known fork of Google's Android. Is there a Microsoft version of Android in the cards? It's way too early to tell, but it looks -- it feels -- like there could be. That would be weird! Nuts! But it would be exciting.

Of course, we're not quite there yet -- Windows 10 proper is still months from release, and the culmination of Microsoft's cross-platform push is far from realised. It was easy to be excited about Windows 8 and the Surface. That was new and strange and exciting in plenty of the same ways. But it was a hulking, overconfident misstep. One Microsoft, after more than a few faceplants, seems to have learned from.

With a realistic vision of what it can do -- and more importantly what it can't do -- Microsoft is poised to shake up a world where competitors are moving slower and turning further inward. Not by taking over the world by force or by trying to lock you into Windows, but by making the best thing for whatever you want to do on whatever device you have.

I can't wait to see what else Microsoft has up its sleeves.

Art by Michael Hession


    The Surface Pro 3 is definitely a big winner for me. We have replaced our desktop PCs, now use a dock, dual 22"'s and a wireless keyboard a mouse. I have exactly the same machine on my desk, which I can then take to a meeting and to our other sites.
    I still use classic start menu, and hate supporting devices without the start menu. So, I'm looking forward to the return of the start menu with Win10.
    We also tried the SP2, but it was really not very useful as a mobile device. Too small, with a very crappy touchpad.

    I think a lot of Microsoft's future also rests with greater integration into business IT infrastructure. With Azure, the integration of Identity (inc BYOD), Storage, VM's and Software as a Service will redefine IT architecture and service delivery models.

      i still dont get the fuss with the start menu

      i never use it

      its the same thing to me having a start menu or not to hit windows key and type something to search

      i have more room to customise shortcuts on w8 start screen

      And moving mouse to bottom left, clicking then going through menus or shortcuts is the exact mirror process of going to bottom right corner and doing the same thing

        Windows 10 you can have both worlds. There is a maximize button on the start menu, so you can maximize and get the whole 8/8.1 experience, or shrink it back down.

        Honestly I'm loving 10 (I'm ok with 8 though)

        Win8.1's all apps screen is a big improvement on the old Win7 All Programs menu - it gives you room to breathe and organise stuff, unlike the tiny pokey thing in Win7! It looks like Win10's start menu will be a variation on Win7's, but 8.1 isn't that bad, in actual fact. Pin apps to the taskbar, right-click the start button and it's fine.

        BTW I haven't touched the charms on the right since just after I installed :)

        Last edited 22/02/15 10:22 pm

          Really? Why Not? I use it all the time, it is way better than the stupid System Tray.


      You are pretty much explaining my work setup, though its a 24" and a 20" (Looking to replace the 20 as it is starting to die).

      SP3 is a great device for both sitting in the office and on the go. Being able to pick up my desktop and walk into a meeting room without losing any functionality is great. Just waiting on our migration over to Sharepoint Online and I can pretty much work from anywhere!

      With regards to the Start Menu, I have started to warm up to the lack of the traditional start menu, simply because I have got more used to the Search functionality as it gets used to my habits and as I have customised my Metro Screen with widgets I need.

      Windows 10 looks like it will have the best of both worlds which is great.

    Is windows 10 going to be free upon release?

      Apparently it's a free update for Windows 7 and 8 users (for about a year or so) IIRC?

      It will be free for the first year of release as long as you already have Windows 7 or some version of 8. After that one year, you will not be able to get it for free and will have to buy it.

        subscribe, more likely

          No, they've been clear that that is not the case.

          Why do people keep saying that? It's not a subscription.

            Yeah, I've seen it theorized a lot, and seriously - not tongue-in-cheek. Something about the repeated 'messaging' of Windows as a service not a product. Which is typically what we've seen from games that go subscription or 'freemium'.

              I know, but I think it's pretty clear that when they refer to Windows as a service they are referring about hoe ubiquitous they want it to be, with Windows 10 IoT and stuff

                Well, it's obviously not now, but who knows what the future holds? I think it's interesting that a big deal was made about how the patch to 8.1 was 'free'. Which... no shit, it should be? If history gets re-written such that service packs and major patches are considered something that should be paid for, it's not much of a stretch for them to set a schedule that functions effectively as a 6-12monthly subscription.

                The line of thought and I guess some other factors I REALLY don't care enough to look into have some industry pundits speculating about the possibility.

                Definitely way to premature to be taking it as a given, though, like some commenters do. Hopefully in a cynical, tongue-in-cheek way.

    As an Xbox One owner though, i've found we're now left with a problem since the reversal of those policies. Yes the console functions offline, but much of the software (including the ugly OS/Dashboard) is designed to be online. Apps and functions like achievements either refuse to load properly offline (e.g. i've had game recordings that won't load properly despite being recorded because they weren't "published online"), and although achievements are apparently "tracked" or whatever, there are no notifications offline or acknowledgements despite even it appearing not too difficult to have implemented (it tracks them offline but it appears they've completely changed it from the way the 360 worked - requiring online verification etc).

    To make matters worse, there's been no indication that they will even bother to address those sorts of issues. It's almost as if they grudgingly backtracked "enough" and left it at that. And what makes it more of a problem is Australian internet speeds (especially in some areas); the console can be super slow or even unstable; crashing or with apps like achievements refusing to load given online dependence on their running and in apparently using online servers for (what I guess) would be handling some of the processing - they did make a big deal about that cloud stuff afterall).

      I'm not sure I agree that they aren't aiming to address those issues, they just haven't addressed those specific ones yet. The Xbox One has received far more rapid updates than the 360 did which address many of those small things people have been asking for. If enough people want offline achievement notification, I wouldn't rule that being one of the things they get around to eventually. The past few months certainly has included updates aimed at improving that "ugly Dashboard" with the way that backgrounds and tiles are displayed, so they are listening.

    Microsoft are back on track and its really good to see that. They're fixing issues with the Xbone, Windows 10 looks like its moving in the right direction, the Surface Pro 3 is awesome, and their Outlook app for Android is just painless to use. They are branching out to other platforms which is vital for their growth and success rather than trying to be a one trick pony. And the fact that theyre developing their HoloLens (no mention of it in this article??) shows that they're seriously out to prove it. Well done MS.

      Ctrl + F 'faceputer'.
      Just a little mention.

        Lol thanks - lack of caffeine in the brain at the time of writing my earlier comment resulted in me totally missing that vague reference.

      I think their push to become almost device agnostic has been the best move they've made. Office remains one of, if not the best and most comprehensive and popular office suites around, and MS have done an excellent job at bringing it to the most popular platforms.

      I think they still have a fair way to go with their hardware though - the SP3 is better than any of the other SP devices but there's still major room for improvement. Windows Phone is still a distant third too and shows no signs of catching up any time soon.

        How can they improve Surface? I think it is already very solid. maybe an extra USB 3 port but that's really the only thing I can think of.

      Outlook app for Android is just painless to use

      Sorta.... I found out the hard way that you can't just re-authenticate details if you have a change in email address, you need to re-install the app (it just kept prompting for logon details but wouldn't let you change the email). Not that it will be a huge problem for many, but it was a surprising lack of functionality considering Lync has a sign out function and Office 365 Mobile has a reset button (that clears logon data)

      If you don't have need to change them however, the apps are fantastic, being able to access and edit Word and Excel documents from OneDrive and Sharepoint is quite good on the fly (if you don't have a Surface and a Wifi token handy)

    The most disappointing thing about the XBOne is that the device itself is technically quite good, perhaps just a bees-dick shy of the PS4 in performance and with a bunch of potentially interesting additional features, but the cloth-eared and bumbling messaging almost completely killed it. If they'd just put it out there and let people use it instead of insisting that "THIS" is the way you will use it, and no other!!!

    As that era of Microsoft's past begins to gain some perspective the arrogance at the top becomes more and more breathtaking.

      I read somewhere that MS is releasing a bee's dick Xbox One adapter to raise performance to the same level as the PS4.

      Tweezers are included, but you have to provide your own bee.

    Is this a paid advertorial?

      Paid or not, i still agree with it.

      They appear to have a clear strategy and path forward. I hope Microsoft continue to try different approaches and shake up the personal computing market. More competition and evolution can only help the end user.

      without the marketing speak, I don't see what technology that makes them so 'exciting?
      Make windows work? That should be their constant goal.

      They have new management & acquired new IP? This is not new

      xbone doesn't do anything particularly special compared to the Ps4, and catching up to consumer needs isn't innovation

      Their laptop tablets & phones are comparable to many others. They might be good, but apples products were good once too!

      Their faceputer/hololens It looks as good as what the kinect promised before reality kicked in

      Congratulations for making their products work? As the biggest supplier of operating systems, who have been working on it since DOS, I think getting their software to meet consumer requirements is not an achievement but a necessity

      I don't understand the tone of this article, maybe the changes may be positive, but we won't see them for a while

        Seriously? Have you seen the Arc Touch Mouse? The Universal Mobile Keyboard? The Surface Pro 3 and it's TypeCover? The demos of HoloLens? These are all truly innovative products and, in the case of the first mentioned, things that have been in the market for several years but remain unique because no-one else can do what Microsoft have done with them. If they can deliver HoloLens on the schedule they've said, with the features they've shown, it will be a bigger revolution than the iPod, iPhone or iPad. It will completely change the way we interact with our computers and with the world around us. It is the future we've been reading about in science fiction for 30 years, not the incremental improvements over existing devices that Apple gave us.

      Did you read the links in this para? it was easy for us tech nerds to get swept up in an idealistic future that all the normals were just too damn scared to accept and to lament Microsoft’s inevitable, necessary, but profoundly defeated reversals.

      Now, right-thinking individuals might consider the messages of all those articles to be saturation-point wank density; the clumsy fumblings of tech-hipsters gleefully leaping onto a reliably-unpopular avant-garde ugly duckling, so that they could preen upon it whilst sniffing their own farts in celebration of their love for something so vile.

      And it's funny to think that there might be a more noble and understandable purpose behind it, such as selling out... but apparently there are people writing for these sites who really, truly believed the hype, were desperate to take the blue pill and offer themselves up for exploitation by the machine.

    Ever since the aged dinosaur steve ballmer left its gone from strength to strength. I do wish though they would resurrect the courier program he cancelled "because it didn't run outlook"

    All I can say is thank God Ballmer is gone and now MS can now get back on track. I see good things coming in the future of MS.

    Will take more than Windows 10 with it's cherry picked from the rest of the computing world's features, to get me back from Fedora Linux

    Love how Gizmodo rewrites its own history all the time...
    I remember all the articles lading the Windows 8 approach when it was still in beta. Gizmodo LOVED it. It's only when it came out and people's reactions were "eww, what IS this new thing?" that it changed the tune.

      I dunno... a lot of those links up there in the article are to the kind of Gizmodo articles you mention, praising Microsoft's brave/idiotic strides/dragging into the future/idiocy.

    Stick with Windows 7 and everything will be fine.
    Don't let Microsoft con you with a free demo that expires and probably blocks you from reinstalling 7.

    Great article. Thankfully there's competition and innovation everywhere now, even from Microsoft and in spite of Microsoft's stifling of those things for many years. The ball slipped out of Microsoft's hands and now it's having to try the strategy of putting the best services on the popular platforms, even if those platforms aren't Microsoft's. This is acknowledging that they just don't have the winning platform anymore. This is a huge change towards pragmatism for the company. The strategy is far. The challenge in the years ahead will be to monetise that strategy.

    Last edited 22/02/15 10:39 pm

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