Microsoft has been pursuing its unified platform strategy for some time now with admittedly mixed results. The infrastructure to build that kind of unified experience is there, and indeed Microsoft applications have demonstrated that it can be taken advantage of, but it really hasn’t spread to third party developers and integrators like they intended it to. A big part of this was the fact that their mobile offering, Windows Phone, is a very minor player that has been largely ignored by the developer community. Whilst its enterprise integration can’t be beaten the consumer experience, which is key to driving further adoption of the platform, has been severely lacking. Today Microsoft has announced a radical new approach to improving this by allowing iOS and Android apps to run as Universal Applications on the Windows platform.
The approach is slightly different between platforms however the final outcome is the same: applications written for the two current kings of the smartphone world can run as a universal application on supported Windows platforms. Android applications can be submitted in their native APK form and will then run in a para-virtualized environment (includes aspects of both emulation as well as direct subsystem integration). iOS applications on the other hand can, as of today, be compiled directly from Objective-C into Universal Applications that can be run on Windows Phones. Of course there will likely still be some effort required to get the UX inline but not having to maintain different core codebases will mean that the barriers to developing a cross platform app that includes Windows Phone will essentially drop to nothing.
Of course whether or not this will translate into more people jumping onto the Windows Phone ecosystem isn’t something I can readily predict. Windows Phone has been languishing in the single digit market share ever since its inception and all the changes that Microsoft has made to get that number up haven’t made a meaningful impact on it. Having a better app ecosystem will be a drawcard to those who like Microsoft but haven’t wanted to make the transition but this all relies on developers taking the time to release their applications on the Windows Phone platform. Making the dev experience easier is the first step to this but then it’s a chicken and egg problem of not having enough market share to make it attractive for both ends of the spectrum.
Alongside this Microsoft also announced the ability for web pages to use features of the Windows Phone platform, enabling them to become hosted web pages with enhanced functionality. It’s an interesting approach for enabling a richer web experience however it feels like something that should probably be a generalized standard rather than a proprietary tech that only works for one platform. Microsoft has shown that they’re willing to open up products like this now, something they never did in the past, so potentially this could just be the beachhead to see whether or not there’s any interest before they start pushing it to a wider audience.
This is definitely a great step in the right direction for Microsoft as anything they can do to reduce the barrier to supporting their ecosystem will go a long way to attracting more developers to their ecosystem. There’s still a ways to go to making their mobile platform a serious contender with the current big two but should this app portability program pay dividends then there’s real potential for them to start clawing back some of the market share they once had. It’s likely going to be some time before we know if this gamble will pay off for Microsoft but I think everyone can agree that they’re at least thinking along the right lines.
The last two years have seen a major shake up in the personal computing industry. Whilst I’m loathed to admit it Apple was the one leading the charge here, redefining the smart phone space and changing the way many people did the majority of their computing by creating the wildly successful niche of curated computing (read: tablets). It is then inevitable that many subsequent innovations from rival companies are seen as reactions to Apple’s advances, even if the steps that company is taking are towards a much larger and broader goal than competing in the same market.
I am, of course, referring to Microsoft’s Windows 8 which was just demoed recently.
There’s been quite a bit of news about the upcoming release of Windows 8 with many leaked screenshots and even leaked builds that gave us a lot of insight into what we can expect of the next version of Windows. For the most part the updates didn’t seem like anything revolutionary although things like portable desktops and a more integrated web experienced were looking pretty slick. Still Windows 7 was far from being revolutionary either but the evolution from Vista was more than enough to convince people that Microsoft was back on the right track and the adoption rates reflect that.
However the biggest shift that is coming with Windows 8 was known long before it was demoed: Windows 8 will run on ARM and other System on a Chip (SOC) devices. It’s a massive deviation from Microsoft’s current platform which is wholly x86/x86-64 based and this confirms Microsoft’s intentions to bring their full Windows experience to tablet and other low power/portable devices. The recent demo of the new operating system confirmed this with Windows 8 having both a traditional desktop interface that we’re all familiar with and also a more finger friendly version that takes all of its design cues from the Metro interface seen on all Windows Phone 7 devices.
Looking at all these changes you can’t help but think that they were all done in reaction to Apple’s dominance of the tablet space with their iPad. It’s true that a lot of the innovations Microsoft has done with Windows 8 mirror those of what Apple has achieved in the past year or so however since Windows 8 has been in development for much longer than that not all of them can be credited to Microsoft playing the me-too game. Realistically it’s far more likely that many of these innovations are Microsoft’s first serious attempts at realizing their three screens vision and many of the changes in Windows 8 support this idea.
A lot of critics think the idea of bringing a desktop OS to a tablet form factor is doomed for failure. The evidence to support that view is strong too since Windows 7 (and any other OS for that matter) tablet hasn’t enjoyed even a percentage of the success that the dedicated tablet OS’s have. However I don’t believe that Microsoft is simply making a play for the tablet market with Windows 8, what they’re really doing is providing a framework for building user experiences that remain consistent across platforms. The idea of being capable of completing any task whether you’re on your phone, TV or dedicated computing device (which can be a tablet) is what is driving Microsoft to develop Windows 8 they way they are. Windows Phone 7 was their first steps into this arena and their UI has been widely praised for its usability and design and Microsoft’s commitment to using it on Windows 8 shows that they are trying to blur the lines that current exist between the three screens. The potential for .NET applications to run on x86, ARM and other SOC platforms seals the deal, there is little doubt that Microsoft is working towards a ubiquitous computing platform.
Microsoft’s execution of this plan is going to be vital for their continued success. Whilst they still dominate the desktop market it’s being ever so slowly eroded away by the bevy of curated computing platforms that do everything users need them to do and nothing more. We’re still a long time away from everyone out right replacing all their PCs with tablets and smart phones but the writing is on the wall for a sea change in the way we all do our computing. Windows 8 is shaping up to be Microsoft’s way of re-establishing themselves as the tech giant to beat and I’m sure the next year is going to be extremely interesting for fans and foes alike.