Microsoft’s New Year’s resolution: embrace the post-PC world

“Nobody ever buys Windows. They buy Windows PCs.”

So said outgoing CEO, Steve Ballmer, in a November interview as a justification for Microsoft’s decision to break with tradition and manufacture its own tablets (and with the recent Nokia acquisition, its own smartphones). Paired with recent rumours that the company is considering the elimination of Windows Phone and Windows RT licensing fees, the admission is evidence of a company slowly breaking away from the business model that led to its past success.

Ballmer admits in the same interview that the shift to produce hardware was a response to Apple’s decade of success in the consumer hardware space, stating that “high end was an issue. There were just a lot of reasons to think Apple was going to be a tough competitor to deal with, just with our OEM model. It was a higher-end brand.” Microsoft’s elimination of licensing fees can also be taken as a tacit admission that the Android model of platform growth has proven superior on the high and low end.

It’s a testament to Microsoft’s desire to win that the company has abandoned a large piece of its PC heritage (albeit years later than it should have). But success won’t come to Microsoft simply through first party hardware and an open(ish) Windows platform. In 2014, people don’t want Windows PCs either; they want post-PCs.

The sexy stylings of modern Microsoft is a thin veneer hiding a very old school mindset.

Sit down, fanboys: Microsoft has a lot of things going for it. As we said in our 2013 tablet gift guide, the company can make some sexy kit. Nokia also makes great hardware, and its recent acquisition guarantees that there will be some great smartphone and tablet options for Windows Phone/RT users for years to come. And while Windows Phone is lacking a significant number of features typical to a mature OS (which will hopefully appear with Windows Phone 8.1), it has in my opinion the most compelling visual design of the three major mobile platforms.

But the sexy stylings of modern Microsoft is a thin veneer hiding a very old school mindset. Take the recent Surface Pro 2 update fiasco, where users able to successfully download the file booted up to find their device compromised, and in some cases unable to charge. Note that I said those who were able to successfully download the update – the lucky majority had the update fail (a patch will be made available sometime in the New Year). While not a common occurrence, it is a familiar one to Windows users, and compounds the frustration caused by Microsoft’s update process, which is unbearably long (Microsoft’s passive aggressive barrage ‘just a few more minutes’ messages throughout the experience tells me that they, too, know how long the process can be), and benefits often unclear. In an age where Apple can painlessly update three quarters of its devices to iOS 7 in a few months, this is Dilbert-era Wintel stuff, something the modern consumer neither expects nor readily tolerates.

The tension between Microsoft’s modern aesthetics and old school design is exemplified throughout the Surface tablet. As we wrote in our gift guide, it’s a modern looking tablet with a PC identity, often to the detriment of the overall experience. It’s a portable tablet that’s really designed to be used at a desk, with a keyboard. It comes with a ‘Desktop’ mode that runs Microsoft Office but isn’t optimized for touch. Windows 8 is an explosion of clean lines and colourful squares, until you dig deeper and see Windows XP running underneath. Pair it with a Surface tablet and you get a very beautiful camel.

Post-PC design requires strong choices that concede ubiquity in favour of refined utility.

Ballmer claims that Microsoft will differentiate itself in the tablet and mobile space by making “tools that make people more productive, IT people, developers, and end users.” In the PC era, those tools were like Swiss Army knives, built as robust as possible to suit the specific needs of many divergent groups (i.e. developers, IT, end users). In 2014, no one needs a Swiss Army knife — one device tied to a desk that can do it all. Each person has multiple devices in multiple form factors, designed to perform specific tasks. In the post-PC world, people don’t want a laptop mucking about in their tablet; they want a great laptop, and a great tablet, and a great smartphone, too.

Post-PC design requires strong choices that concede ubiquity in favour of refined utility. The iPad Air knows exactly what it wants to do, and is thus empowered to do it very well; the Surface wants to do everything, and suffers. If Microsoft really wants to follow Apple into the post-PC world of 2014, it has to realize that ‘high end’ refers to more than build quality and colourful software.