Last week’s arguably inevitable announcement from Microsoft that it would be paring back the smartphone business it acquired from Nokia in 2013, may have come as welcome news to the company’s partners who are already building small Windows 10 devices for premiere during the back-to-school sales season.
Up to now, there was no compelling reason for major smartphone vendors like HPC and Samsung or small device makers like HP and Lenovo to continue building devices for Windows Phone or Windows 8.1 so long as Microsoft was doing the same thing using Nokia technology.
The question today, now that Microsoft appears to be promising to be less of a competitor against its own partners, is whether a new compelling reason appears just on the horizon.
The Long, Long Entail
Until one does, the company’s executive vice president for the new Windows and Devices group, Terry Myerson, told company partners at the Worldwide Partner Conference in Orlando Monday morning, they’ll have this promise: Microsoft’s building of new applications and new devices (such as they are) will spark the “user engagement” that may, in turn, lead to that bright, new, compelling reason.
His explanation may actually be more complex than the “entail” explanation for why Matthew inherits the estate in “Downton Abbey.”
“It all starts with the user engagement that comes from applications,” said Myerson. “Microsoft is writing some great applications, Office applications, games, enterprise management, to fuel that user engagement with Windows. Those people don’t use Windows for Windows; they’re using these applications on Windows.
“An engaged user with a device is looking for a new device from our partners,” Myerson added, advancing a curious new theory.
That theory goes on to say that Microsoft works with partners to design new devices that are better suited for the applications being run on them. Here, Myerson comes dangerously close to admitting that the reason engaged users look for new devices is because they’re not satisfied with the ones they have — not insofar as they’re capable of running the applications they need.
(If Myerson’s theory ends up being true, the whole raison d’être for Windows 8 could become self-evident.)
“With each new partner device that is built, those devices come together into what we call our Windows Device Base,” he continued. That Device Base is then enriched, he went on, through the addition of Microsoft-brand devices.
To recap so far: Microsoft devices engage users in such a way that they want new devices. Partners can respond to that need by contributing their designs into an ecosystem made relevant by Microsoft’s co-participation.
Continuously upgrading the Device Base, the XVP explained, makes the Windows 10 ecosystem more attractive for developers to produce applications. Those applications then help drive user engagement, in what Myerson depicts as a virtuous cycle that “goes round and round. This is how it all fits together.”
While Microsoft executives continue to repeat CEO Satya Nadella’s theme of today’s environment being a “mobile-first, cloud-first world,” what Myerson’s explanation fails to take into account is that Windows’ principal competition is no longer another operating system. It is another way of work entirely: the delivery of server-based functionality through simpler, Web-oriented, client-side frameworks for which Microsoft’s own Azure is emerging as a clear leader.
The reason for producing purpose-built devices for specific applications only proves itself in certain use cases, some of which Myerson mentioned — medical monitors for hospitals, and conferencing panels for corporate boardrooms. In the general use case, however, there’s less and less reason for any device to behave like a PC — like a device that runs one operating system capable of running only one class of application.
The recent success of Microsoft’s own Office applications on platforms other than Windows is perhaps the greatest testament to this fact.
Good reasons do remain for partners like HP, Lenovo, and Dell to continue producing tablets and portable devices running Windows 10. It’s not that Windows 10 has become impertinent just yet. But Myerson does appear to imply that, going forward, Microsoft will refrain from incorporating device features that compete too heavily against such features as Lenovo’s swiveling screen.
Which makes one wonder why it acquired Nokia’s devices in the first place.