In a year where we largely turned our backs on the real world and huddled indoors, technology and the companies that developed them gained outsized influence. Microsoft loomed larger than most, powering the PCs that ran Microsoft Teams and the Xbox game consoles on which at least some of us passed their time after hours.
So was it, overall, a great year for Microsoft? Not exactly. The pandemic disrupted its product development, for one, forcing Microsoft to readjust its dual-screen ambitions. The hype train that accompanied its Surface Duo never apparently panned out in actual sales.
We’ve collected Microsoft’s highlights, low points, and unexpected moments that made us scratch our head. It was a profoundly weird, awful year, and we’re all hoping to return to a sense of normalcy in 2021.
Surface Pro 7: WIN
For some reason, whenever I think of Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet lineup, I think of a barber surveying his work. A trim here, a snip there, and it’s done.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7 may follow suit, simply upgrading the internals year in and year out, but you can’t argue with success. Most of its rivals have ceded the field, leaving the Surface Pro 7 as the ultimate Windows tablet.
The Surface Neo looks incredible, but it didn’t make it out of 2020. Officially, Microsoft delayed the Surface Neo until the “right moment” arrives. Has that moment already passed for dual-screen PCs? Is Windows 10X, the dual-screen OS that was supposed to drive it all, now just a simplified version of Windows 10 in S Mode that will mark another Microsoft tilt at the Chromebook windmill? The answer to the latter question, at least, seems to be yes.
Windows on Arm: WTF
I really want Windows on Arm to succeed. Fierce competition benefits the consumer, and the trichotomy of Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm brought with it an emphasis on price, performance, and battery life. But for the last two years, Windows on Arm has stagnated. Qualcomm may protest, but there just doesn’t seem to be any substantive movement forward.
Microsoft still has room for improvement. I’d still like to see a 14-inch or 15-inch clamshell with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD somewhere around $700, for one. Still, Microsoft’s efforts to design a laptop for a more mainstream market should be applauded. Keep it up!
Microsoft Surface Duo: FAIL
Microsoft convinced the world that its folding, dual-screen phone was the hottest mobile device this side of Cupertino, luring the tech press into covering its hands-on preview in 2019, then keeping the hype dialed up to 11 until its launch nearly a year later. Neither strategy panned out. The Surface Duo launched as a buggy, $1,400 device, and it bombed.
To be fair, the dual-screen vision that the Duo espoused worked. If we believe that two displays makes PC users more productive, then a dual-screen phone should have the same effect. To succeed, the Surface Duo probably needed a more comprehensive vision of how all apps (and not just those from Microsoft) could span both screens; a better camera; some additional development time; and a much lower price tag.
Who knew that people would actually care about a new version of Microsoft Edge? The old (EdgeHTML) Edge browser did some things superbly (PDFs, for example), but the new Microsoft Edge runs on top of Chromium. That allows users to take advantage of the thousands of add-ons at the Chrome Store and use them to spice up their Edge browser.
We’re all well aware that the pandemic destroyed businesses as well as lives during 2020, but Microsoft’s retail stores weren’t exactly thriving during the best of times. Anecdotally, it wasn’t quite as bleak as it seems. The brick-and-mortar Microsoft Stores represented a sort of Best Buy bodega, celebrating products from numerous brands. Some stores will remain as “experience centers.”
Still, at a company with a roller-coaster commitment to consumers, the lack of (physical) shops makes it look even less connected to its users compared to Apple. RIP, on-site tech support.
Microsoft Teams usage soars: WIN
As the 2020 pandemic’s enforced isolations catapulted Zoom into mainstream ubiquity, someone at Microsoft screamed “YOLO” and became hell-bent on catching up. Teams had been the dustpan for Skype’s crumbs until the pandemic hit. All of a sudden it became a tool not just for collaboration tool but for videoconferencing, as well as a platform for education.
In a year where Microsoft’s two Windows 10 updates weren’t that significant, maybe it’s fair that we just keep coming back to Cortana. She has evolved from an integral part of Windows 10 to an app suffering from a disastrous loss of competency (later fixed). Cortana didn’t even make an appearance at Microsoft Build. (That, according to Microsoft corporate vice president Andrew Shuman, was in part due to the pandemic.)
Do we obsess too much over the Cortana personality, as opposed to the technology? After all, we’ve known for a while that Cortana is becoming more of a general-purpose AI, with nifty computer-generated summaries of your email, for example. Still, Cortana’s issues speak to the stagnancy some feel is creeping into Windows.
Surprisingly, the coolest thing about the Xbox Series X is Quick Resume, which cuts through all the introductory cruft while loading a game and gets you back to playing it within seconds. It’s something no other platform can do quite yet, including the PC.
Microsoft kills Mixer: FAIL
Microsoft’s consumer strategy is so vexing at times. It’s true that the unexpected shutdown of Mixer was due to a simple lack of audience compared to Twitch, and, to a lesser extent, YouTube.
But Microsoft missed an opportunity. If we were running Microsoft, we would have carved out space for an e-sports arena on Microsoft’s campus, thrown some money at an e-sports tournament, broadcast it over Mixer…and yes, invited streamers like Ninja to play.
Microsoft does continue to snatch up game studios, boosting its IP assets, while absolutely nailing platform improvements such as Xbox Game Pass. The dichotomy between Microsoft’s aggressive plays in some areas and its lassitude in others certainly keeps us wondering.
Xbox Game Pass for PC/Xbox: WIN
“Sony is to games what Microsoft is to platform.” That’s a gross oversimplification of both companies’ relative strengths in the gaming markets. Still, Microsoft absolutely understands the strength of its Xbox platform and how to maximize it: Get as many games as possible in the hands of consumers, via built-in backward compatibility and more.
That’s a long-winded setup for Game Pass, undoubtedly the best value in gaming and now available both on the Xbox and the PC.
As we shifted gears from working next to friends and coworkers to collaborating online, no one quite knew what it all meant for big conferences like Computex, CES, and IFA, where hands-on, meet-and-greets, and press conferences had been staples for decades.
While some conferences were cancelled or severaly cut back, Microsoft’s Build conference, Ignite, and others succeeded wildly. Microsoft employees ditched the hours-long presentations and offered up focused, informative conferences mixed with socially-distanced presentations from both stages and home offices. This wasn’t just a win for Microsoft’s technology, it was a triumph of the company’s culture.