The Microsoft opportunity, or why Metro has made Microsoft an interesting company again

September 23, 2011

For the past few days, I’ve been watching Microsoft videos from their past week’s developer conference. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot going in, but I also didn’t have any prejudices. I didn’t know what to expect.

The material I’ve seen has been impressive. For me, two things happened previously that fed into this.

First, I’m working day-to-day on mobile software. Part of the work is being familiar with all major mobile platforms. We got a Samsung Windows Phone device several months ago, just to play around with. I was delighted by its execution quality, in both hardware and software. I’m not saying it’s better than my beloved iPhone, but it’s a worthy contender. There’s something different about the touch surface. My finger glides more smoothly on it than on the iPhone somehow. And the hardware-accelerated transitions and animations are extremely smooth. I’d venture to say they’re smoother than iOS in many cases, and certainly much better than Android that falls far behind both.

Secondly, the Metro Windows 8 tablet video was published a few months ago. This is when I started to connect the dots. Until then, Windows Phone 7 was an outlier in the otherwise boring landscape of old Microsoft: a successful isolated product, but having no impact on the day-to-day experience of my girlfriend’s daily usage of a Windows computer at home and work. But when I saw that they are bringing the same material to tablets and ultimately desktop computers, I really started to go “hmmmmmmm… there’s something going on here.”

Last week’s Build conference summarizes this evolution with a set of well-produced keynotes and topic videos. If you are only looking to see one, and if you have anything to do with design in your work at all, you should watch “8 traits of great Metro style apps.” Jensen Harris’ presentation is engaging. He pokes fun at Microsoft marketing and tells a comprehensive vision of how to design Metro apps for Windows.

Pay attention to the nuance. What strikes me most is the comprehensiveness of the production. The correct typography is used in all the material. There are a few bulleted slides, but it’s mostly all about the demos. Heck, the Microsoft shuttle that I see driving around in Mountain View has the same design and typography. The shuttle alone tells me that Microsoft is serious about this, and it’s not some weird guys doing something on their own, but it’s about a serious corporate turnover.

The one thing that Microsoft should do, is to stay humble and not get carried away. I’ve already seen comparisons of Steven Sinofsky’s keynote to Steve Jobs. To which I respond, guys, chill out. You still suck. You have managed to put together a somewhat well produced event with many glitches, and your products are not ideal. Go back and watch your own videos where many of the swipe events on devices are not working, and once in a while you have to go to Task Manager to kill and restart the apps. It’s fine in the developer conference and earned you an applause after that fixed the problem, but in the consumer world, that is silly, and this would be a bad time to start feeling too good about yourselves and make too many bombastic statements.

Microsoft has made a promising first step on the path of becoming an interesting company again. I actually wish they would do well. I find the whole Windows experience and vision (also on phones and tablets) to be much more cohesive than Android, and I wouldn’t be sad or surprised to see Windows replacing Android in the next two years with their Nokia partnership and great distribution channels. Or maybe not. Who knows. This is definitely a somewhat volatile time for developers and a great time for consumers.

Let’s keep in mind, though, that the only Metro device shipping today is Windows Phone, and the last I checked, its sales numbers where not that great. So, it’s too early to declare victory of any kind. But Microsoft is definitely back in the race that some people thought only belonged to Apple and Google, iOS and Android. I’ll be watching.