If there’s one thing that turn an otherwise professional looking document into a piece of horrifying garbage it’s clip art. Back in the days when graphics on computers were a still a nascent field, one populated with people with little artistic style, they were the go-to source for images to convey a message. Today however, with clip art’s failure to modernize in any way (mostly due to the users who desperately cling to it’s disgustingly iconic style) it’s become a trademark of documents that have had little to no thought put into them. Microsoft has been aware of this for some time, drastically reducing the amount of clip art present in Office 2010 and moving the entire library online in Office 2013. Now that library no longer contains any clip art at all, now it just points to Bing Images.
As someone who’s had to re-enable access to clip art more times then he’d have liked to I’m glad Microsoft has made this move as whilst it won’t likely see everyone become a graphic designer overnight it will force them to think long and hard about the images they’re putting into their documents. The limited set of images provided as part of clip art usually meant people would try to shoehorn multiple images together in order to convey what they were after, rather than attempting create something in Visio or just searching through the Internet. Opening it up to the Bing Image search engine, which by default filters to images which have the appropriate Creative Commons licensing, is obviously done in a hope that more people will use the service although whether they will or not remains to be seen.
However what’s really interesting about this is what it says about where Microsoft is looking to go in the near term when it comes to its Office line of products. Most people wouldn’t know it but Microsoft has been heavily investing in developing Office to be a much more modern set of documentation tools, retaining their trademark backwards compatibility whilst making it far more easier to make documents that are clean, professional and, above all, usable. The reason why most people wouldn’t know about it is that their latest product, Sway, isn’t yet part of the traditional Office product suite but with Microsoft’s push to get everyone on Office 365 I can’t see that being the case for too long.
Sway is essentially a replacement for PowerPoint, yet another Microsoft product that’s been lauded for it’s gaudy design principles and gross overuse in certain situations. However instead of focusing just on slides and text it’s designed to be far more interactive and inter-operable, able to gather data from numerous different sources and present it in a format that’s far more pleasing than any PowerPoint presentation I’ve seen. Unfortunately it’s still in closed beta for the time being so I can’t give you my impressions with it (I’ve been on the waiting list for some time now) but suffice to say if Sway is the future of Microsoft’s Office products than the ugly history of clip art might end up just being a bad memory.
It’s just more evidence that the Microsoft of today is nothing like the one it was in the past. Microsoft is still a behemoth of a company, one that’s more beholden to it’s users than it’d like to admit, but we’re finally starting to see some forms of innovation from them rather than their old strategy of embrace, extend, extinguish. Whether its users will embrace the new way of doing things or cling to the old (like they continue to do) will be the crux of Microsoft’s strategy going forward but either way it’s an exciting time if you’re a Microsoft junkie like myself.
As a poor student the last thing I wanted to pay for was software. Whilst the choice to pirate a base operating system is always questionable, it’s the foundation on which all your computing activities rely, it was either pay the high license cost or find an alternative. I’ve since found numerous, legitimate alternatives of course (thank you BizSpark) but not everyone is able to take advantage of them. Thus for many the choice to upgrade their copy of Windows typically comes with the purchase of a new computer, something which doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I believe that this is one factor that’s affected the Windows 8/8.1 adoption rates and it seems Microsoft might be willing to try something radical to change it.
Rumours have been making the rounds that Microsoft is potentially going to offer a low cost (or completely free) version of their operating system dubbed Windows 8.1 with Bing. Details as to what is and isn’t included are still somewhat scant but it seems like it will be a full version without any major strings attached. There’s even musings around some of Microsoft core applications, like Office, to be bundled in with the new version of Windows 8.1. This wouldn’t be unusual (they already do it with Office Core for the Surface) however it’s those consumer applications where Microsoft draws a lot of its revenue in this particular market segment so their inclusion would mean the revenue would have to be made up somewhere else.
Many are toting this release as being targeted mostly at Windows 7 users who are staving off making the switch to Windows 8. In terms of barriers to entry they are by far the lowest although they’re also the ones who have the least to gain from the upgrade. Depending on the timing of the release though this could also be a boon to those XP laggards who run out of support in just over a month. The transition from XP to Windows 8 is much more stark however, both in terms of technology and user experience, but there are numerous things Microsoft could do in order to smooth it over.
Whilst I like the idea there’s still the looming question of how Microsoft would monetize something like this as releasing something for free and making up the revenue elsewhere isn’t really their standard business model (at least not with Windows itself). The “With Bing” moniker seems to suggest that they’ll be relying heavily on browser based revenue, possibly by restricting users to only being able to use Internet Explorer. They’ve got into hot water for doing similar things in the past although they’d likely be able to argue that they no longer hold a monopoly on Internet connected devices like they once did. Regardless it will be interesting to see what the strategy is as the mere rumour of something like this is new territory for Microsoft.
It’s clear that Microsoft doesn’t want Windows 7 to become the next XP and is doing everything they can to make it attractive to get users to make the switch. They’re facing an uphill battle as there’s still a good 30% of Windows users who are still on XP, ones who are unlikely to change even in the face of imminent end of life. A free upgrade might be enough to coax some users across however Microsoft needs to start selling the transition from any of their previous version as a seamless affair, something that anyone can do on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Even then there will still be holdouts but at least it’d go a long way to pushing the other versions’ market share down into the single digits.
In the time that Microsoft has been a company it has only known two Chief Executive Officers. The first was unforgettably Bill Gates, the point man of the company from its founding days that saw the company grow from a small software shop to the industry giant of the late 90s. Then, right at the beginning of the new millennium, Bill Gates stood down and passed the crown to long time business partner Steve Ballmer who has since spent the better part of 2 decades attempting to transform Microsoft from a software company to a devices and services one. Rumours had been spreading about who was slated to take over Ballmer for some time now and, last week, after much searching Microsoft veteran Satya Nadella took over as the third CEO of the venerable company and now everyone is wondering where he will take it.
For those who don’t know him Nadella’s heritage in Microsoft comes from the Server and Tools department where he’s held several high ranking positions for a number of years. Most notably he’s been in charge of Microsoft’s cloud computing endeavours, including building out Azure which hit $1 billion in sales last year, something I’m sure helped to seal the deal on his new position. Thus many would assume that Nadella’s vision for Microsoft would trend along these lines, something which runs a little contrary to the more consumer focused business that Ballmer sought to deliver, however his request to have Bill Gates step down as Chairman of the Board so that Nadella could have him as an advisor in this space says otherwise.
As with any changing of the guard many seek to impress upon the new bearer their wants for the future of the company. Nadella has already come under pressure to drop some of Microsoft’s less profitable endeavours including things like Bing, Surface and even the Xbox division (despite it being quite a revenue maker, especially as of late). Considering these products are the culmination of the effort of the 2 previous CEOs, both of which will still be involved in the company to some degree, taking an axe to them would be a extraordinarily hard thing to do. These are the products they’ve spent years and billions of dollars building so dropping them seems like a short sighted endeavour, even if it would make the books look a little better.
Indeed many of these business units which certain parties would look to cut are the ones that are seeing good growth figures. The surface has gone from a $900 million write down disaster to losing a paltry $39 million in 2 quarters, an amazing recovery that signals profitability isn’t too far off. Similarly Bing, the search engine that we all love to hate on, saw a 34% increase in revenue in a single quarter. It’s not even worth mentioning the Xbox division as it’s been doing well for years now and the release of the XboxOne with it’s solid initial sales ensures that remains one of Microsoft’s better performers.
The question then becomes whether Nadella, and the board he now serves, sees the on-going value in these projects. Indeed much of the work they’ve been doing in the past decade has been with the focus towards unifying many disparate parts of their ecosystem together, heading towards that unified nirvana where everything works together seamlessly. Removing them from the picture feels like Microsoft backing itself into a corner, one where it can be easily shoehorned into a narrative that will see it easily lose ground to those competitors it has been fighting for years. In all honesty I feel Microsoft is so dominant in those sectors already that there’s little to be gained from receding from perceived failures and Nadella should take this chance to innovate on his predecessor’s ideas, not toss them out wholesale.