Windows can't keep partying like it's 1999

Microsoft will use its Build developer conference to talk about innovations for its flagship OS

Microsoft partners, developers and customers may get a clearer picture this week of how the company plans to keep Windows relevant now that its rock-solid position in the market has been shaken up by competitors, shifts in technology and the lukewarm reception of recent releases.

"The future of Windows is overall in a bit of jeopardy," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft's newly minted CEO, recently said that he and other top executives would discuss future "innovations" for Windows at the Build conference, which starts on Wednesday. They'll have their work cut out for them.

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"One of the questions right up front I wanted to address is, 'What about Windows, where does Windows fit in with all of this?'" Nadella said last week at the press conference he held to introduce Office for iPad. There, he reiterated that Microsoft is focused on serving customers both at home and at work in what it views as a "mobile-first, cloud-first" world.

"Windows is a massive agenda for us. We will innovate and you will see us talk [at Build] about the great innovations in the operating system and great innovations in devices," he said.

Windows was for decades the king of operating systems for personal computing equipment, ruling over desktop and laptop PCs, but the monarch OS is having trouble defending its throne in the age of smartphones and tablets, where iOS and Android rule.

Windows 8, which was supposed to extend the operating system's dominance to tablets, got mixed reviews, in particular because its new tile interface, optimized for tablets, was considered inconvenient for desktop PC users even though it also came with an alternate "traditional" Windows 7-like interface.

In the end, Windows 8 didn't come close to achieving the success Microsoft envisioned for it, and an 8.1 update was released almost a year later. Windows 8.1 smoothed out some of the rough edges, but it had its own bugs, and many felt it didn't go far enough in addressing the needs of keyboard-and-mouse users.

Microsoft is expected to detail further refinements to Windows 8.1 at Build.

"There was a decision initially to make Windows 8 unfriendly to desktop users, and Microsoft has since been putting back in there features that they took out," Silver said, referring to elements such as the Start menu and button.

On the handset side, Windows Phone 8 remains far behind Android and iOS, but a new 8.1 version is in the works and it'll be discussed at Build as well.

Then there's Windows RT, the Windows 8 for ARM devices, which some say may be merged with Windows Phone so that Microsoft can offer customers and developers a uniform OS experience in smartphones and "phablets."

"Microsoft needs to consolidate its platforms, at least from an application perspective, so that developers don't have to maintain separate applications. I would expect this will be a priority for Microsoft going forward," IDC analyst Al Gillen said via email.

The importance of the future and strategy for Windows has been heightened by Microsoft's US$7.2 billion deal to acquire Nokia's smartphone business, which is expected to close in late April.

Bringing the development of future Nokia devices into the Microsoft fold is expected to yield better products because Microsoft will be in complete control of the hardware, software and services. Clearly, the operating system powering these devices, as well as the applications running on them, are key elements for achieving that success.

Nokia will hold a press conference at Build where it presumably will offer details about upcoming Windows-powered devices.

So far, indications from Microsoft executives point to a uniform code-base strategy for Windows from smartphones through servers, making the platform more attractive for developers building applications and IT professionals managing enterprise systems.

"That seems to be the path they've had for Windows for a while," Silver said.

Gillen doesn't think there will ever be a uniform set of APIs (application programming interfaces) running the gamut from phone to server. "But there could be a subset/superset scenario," with a few core APIs along with specific ones for different platforms, he said.

Microsoft's strategy is different from the one taken by its biggest rivals, both of which have separate OSes for mobile devices and PCs.

Apple has done well with iOS for iPhones and iPads, and Mac OS for desktop and laptop PCs. Likewise, Google has Android for smartphones and tablets, and ChromeOS for Chromebook laptops and desktops -- although there have been persistent rumors that Google will at some point merge those two operating systems.

However, Gillen said that Microsoft's case is different from its competitors', so its strategy for Windows doesn't necessarily need to follow someone else's model.

"Apple has a different audience and ecosystem than Microsoft has, and I think it is oversimplifying to compare and contrast the two companies in this manner. Microsoft needs to do what is best for its ecosystem," Gillen said.

Back in September, Terry Myerson, the executive vice president of the Operating Systems Group at Microsoft, talked about this vision of a uniform Windows experience from the handset to the data center.

"We really should have one silicon interface for all of our devices. We should have one set of developer APIs on all of our devices," Myerson said during the company's meeting with financial analysts. "And all of the apps we bring to end users should be available on all of our devices."

Myerson's team was formed in July as part of a company reorganization architected by then-CEO Steve Ballmer, who at the time said the group would be in charge of "all our OS work for console, to mobile device, to PC, to back-end systems," as well as of the OS "core cloud services."

In addition to the single developer toolset and application parity across devices, his team is working on "one core [cloud] service, which is enabling all of our devices," while at the same time providing a "tailored" experience for each device, from 3-inch phones to 60-inch TV sets, he said then.

"We want to facilitate the creation of a common, familiar experience across all of those devices, but fundamentally tailored and unique for each device," Myerson said.

It's reasonable to expect that Microsoft will expand on this vision during Build, a big conference aimed primarily at commercial and enterprise developers, a crowd that hasn't rushed to embrace Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 just yet.

"A key message for the conference has to be: Come back to Windows to develop," Silver said. Microsoft should also extend the scope of its development tools so they can be used to create applications not just for Windows, but also for other platforms, such as iOS and Android, he added.

It remains to be seen whether Nadella and his charges can get developers and IT pros enthused about the future of Windows, and if the path they trace for the OS will lead to success or obsolescence.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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