We leave Microsoft's Build developer conference with more questions than answers about the state of Windows, and that’s not a good thing.
We wrote rather optimistically about a March reorganization that erased “Windows” from the roles of senior management. Microsoft never answered the underlying questions that reshuffling posed: Is Microsoft Windows as important as it once was? Is the PC? What will it mean for developers and users, who've enjoyed a steady stream of new features over the past few years, and bought into Microsoft’s unified vision of Windows phones, tablets and PCs?
These are all valid, important questions that Microsoft could have answered at Build. If you talk to Microsoft representatives, they believe they did. Windows enthusiasts might feel differently.
Instead, Microsoft made a fundamental mistake that experts sometimes do, which is to assume the audience understands the topic as well as they do. Windows appeared, on stage and during a total of thirty sessions, mostly aimed at improving apps for the platform. Otherwise, Microsoft spent Build talking about infusing apps and services with artificial intelligence, and applying fundamental technologies like Windows ML to create “intelligent edge” devices. Users (and even some developers, I imagine) could be forgiven for wondering: Where’s Windows?
Communication begins at the top
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella had a chance to address Windows. After opening his Build keynote with ethics, AI, and Azure, he set up this scenario: In a single day, Nadella said, you’re using multiple devices while working in multiple locations, with multiple people, and interacting with multiple sensors. Phones, tablets, PCs are all able to access a common set of data. That’s the world we already live in, he said.
But then Nadella lost half his audience in four sentences.
“We need an operating system, we need a platform, that abstracts the hardware in that level, that creates an app model at that level,” Nadella said. “Single devices...will remain important, but this meta-orchestration is what we need to do. We need to up-level even our concept of what an operating system is. So that’s what Microsoft 365 does.”
Meta-orchestration? Up-leveling an OS?? What does all that even mean?
Nadella didn’t even reference Windows, but rather Microsoft 365, a bundle of Windows, Office 365, and mobile management software that Microsoft introduced last September, selling it to enterprises on a contractual basis. To consumers, this is unfamiliar ground: Microsoft 365 sounds like Office 365, not Windows, and suggests some sort of a subscription model for Windows.
Second, Microsoft hasn’t reconciled its vision for the future with the realities of what customers need to pay for. Microsoft’s superb on-stage demonstration of the conference room of the future featured live transcription and translation of what the participants said, in real time—but that capability is delivered by Microsoft’s Cognitive Services. From a conversation I had with Office 365 director of marketing Rob Howard, it seems like these platform-level capabilities may eventually make their way into shipping products like Microsoft Teams—but again, that distinction wasn’t clear.
Finally, if Rajesh Jha is now leading the "Experiences and Devices" team that subsumed Windows, it would have been nice to hear from him, too.
Talking around the problem
We know that Windows isn’t going away. But that’s where the conversation largely ends. The Verge walked into a face-to-face interview with Nadella, asked him point-blank about Windows and its future, and received this abstract answer: “So what is conceptually Windows: it’s always about managing a bunch of hardware resources, whether on the server or on the client, and creating an application model on top of it. We have that now a lot more than ever.”
Nadella followed that with a somewhat clearer acknowledgment that while Windows was important, sticking with users beyond traditional Windows platforms was the new priority. "The only thing that will matter for Microsoft is...serving our users well across all of their devices," Nadella explained. "This is not about taking away anything from Windows. If it’s anything, it’s adding to Windows the capability to span more devices." he continued.
But again, Nadella pulled in Microsoft 365, "so we're not confused that our job is to serve our customers who have multiple devices."
Nadella's comments did little to advance the conversation around Windows. Microsoft's corporate vice president of communications, Frank Shaw, suggested Microsoft may have "over corrected," talking more to developers than to consumers or end users, he said. Microsoft had received feedback at past Build conferences that it had leaned too much toward addressing end users, Shaw said.
"We continue to invest in [Windows] experiences that we and our partners make," Shaw added. That's more of the statement Windows fans hoped to hear at Build.
Windows' future is murky
In the run-up to Windows 10, we knew that Microsoft planned a version for PCs, one for phones, one for more esoteric devices like the Surface Hub, and even an OS for the Xbox that included PC-style apps like Microsoft Edge. The ecosystem was clear, defined, and easily understood by developers and users alike.
Since then, UWP apps have offered a chance for apps to run across multiple platforms. Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), a new capability enabled by the April 2018 Update, takes that even further, essentially allowing a web app to run on top of Windows. And Microsoft clearly continues to innovate on Windows, delivering new builds as part of its upcoming Windows release, due this fall.
But step too far beyond that, and you risk falling into the yawning void that appears to be Windows’ future. There were rumors that Microsoft was redesigning Windows, using a Composable Shell (CShell) that will let the OS to stretch or shrink to fit devices of all shapes and sizes—essentially rebirthing Windows phones and mobile devices. But we've never heard anything official about it.
We all understand that Microsoft might not want to reveal its roadmap, or that it wanted to focus on innovations like AI. But it had a perfect chance to reassure developers and users alike that the platform Microsoft was built upon, Windows, was still the foundation for its future—or that something even better was waiting in the wings. And Microsoft fumbled the ball.