Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer opened the company’s Worldwide Partner Conference yesterday with a series of demos around Windows 8.1, saying that the firm has learned from its mistakes and is well on the way to finishing its transformation from a software company to being one that creates “products and services”
What does that mean? First off it means that Windows 8.1 feels a lot more finished, and with features like Miracast built in for streaming from a tablet to an Xbox or TV, the longstanding vision of the ‘Microsoft House’ is pretty close to realisation. At the core of that is cloud syncing – there’s a ton of new features in Windows 8.1 which are mostly like the App Store and Play’s greatest hits built directly into the operating system: so you get Dropbox like storage for sending documents from one screen to another, Pocket-like abities to save reading features for offline consumption and some neat picture editing abilities including selective saturation of any single colour in a shot.
Most of all, of course, it means lots of new devices and cloud-based services. Apparently Office 365 is now the fastest growing product within Microsoft’s portfolio, and there’s a raft of new applications rolled out for it including Power BI for Office, which turns Excel into an exceptionally powerful data analytics tool with SQL abilities and a built-in web scraper for lifting data from webpages just by typing in a search.
According to Ballmer, as much as Microsoft is looking to re-orient itself, “software development remains the most important skill in the world,” which is a heartening statement for the many young app developers here who are looking to break in to the business. In order to help promote better design for Windows apps, developers can now become certified in ‘TouchWins’ training, which will encourage touchscreen interaction for business applications and not just the more public fare of the App Store and Play.
“At Microsoft we say what’s our unique point of view? It’s delivering high value experiences throough our devices and software,” he said, “We think we understand what it takes to get things done better than anywone else on the planet.You need a piece of analysis? We’re going to have the best tools. You want to partcipate in a virtual meeting? No-one is going to help you do that better than Micosoft does.”
One interesting stat revealed in the keynote was that Microsoft now operates more thna a million servers in its data centres, which power everything from Bing to its Azure platform for business.
“Thats less than Google,” explained Ballmer, “But more than Amazon.”
There may be one flaw in the overall vision, however. CFO Tami Teller described the difference between Microsoft and its rivals in a crowd-pleasing way: “When a consumer buys an Apple device they get a device that reflects Apple. When you buy a Google device, you get a device that reflects a dizzying number of points of view. When you buy a Microsoft device you get a device that reflects you.”
The point being that Windows is just customisable enough, and the insistence on Modern UI interfaces means apps should behave similarly on whatever device you log into with your Microsoft details. It’s also led to a surprising consistency between Microsoft’s consumer apps and it’s business ones – the Dynamics software suite is quitely developing into a very broad one-app-to-do-it-all tool for business which does everything from customer database maintenance to point of sale transactions on Windows tablets and phones – you can expect to see some of the more up-market restaurants using these soon, I reckon.
The catch in the vision, of course, is that there’s still that schizophrenic relationship between Modern UI and the traditional desktop on full x86 Windows 8 machines. It seems clear that as much as Microsoft has returned some love to the desktop with 8.1, it’s still trying to wean us away from it, although now it’s using the velvet glove of making Modern UI a better place to be rather than the iron fist of smashing the older interface. It’s not quite there yet.