This has been a big week for Microsoft, with a flood of new announcements and changes of direction. Along with its Build conference, new CEO Satya Nadella has made a number of moves designed to reverse the public perception that the company is an aging also ran in the technology races.
The changes include
- Rolling out its new Cortana digital voice assistant
- Announcing that Windows would be free to manufacturers of devices with small screens
- Coming out with "universal" Windows technology that helps developers build apps that run on multiple versions of Microsoft's operating system
- Reviving the popular "Start" menu for Windows 8.1
Though some of those moves are more important than others, they're all good things. Unfortunately, I don't think they'll be enough to solve Microsoft's problem of being seen as your father's technology vendor. Here's why:
Consumers vs. IT
As noted above, Microsoft's issues right now revolve around how the company is perceived by consumers, and it's unlikely that these initiatives will be enough to change those perceptions. While all useful, none of them are truly new. Instead, they're playing catch-up to existing products and services from Microsoft's competitors, perhaps with incremental improvements, or acknowledgements that previous Microsoft strategies simply weren't working out.
Technology professionals will welcome these changes, but the IT community isn't where Microsoft's problems lie. In my experience,, enterprise IT generally likes and trusts the company. Microsoft's challenges lie in convincing fickle consumers that it's as cool and innovative as Apple and Google. I can't imagine these moves being exciting enough to do that.
Better, but not better enough
While initial reports suggest that Cortana is a credible or even superior alternative to Apple's Siri and Google Now, the fact remains that other companies pioneered the voice assistant idea. Cortana would have to be light-years better than its already-in-place rivals to truly give Microsoft a significant advantage.
Similarly, making Windows free for mobile devices may help spark more device makers to adopt the platform, but it's not like it will make an immediate difference to consumers. Besides, Android is already free to license. Once again, Microsoft is playing catch up.
Universal Windows app development may pay off with more app choices in the long run, but it's a pretty geeky concept for most end users. Finally, bringing back the Start menu will ease the transition to Windows 8 for some holdouts, but let's face it, the cool kids aren't really interested in desktop Windows at this point.
Put it all together and you've got a collection of tweaks and that could change the substance of what Microsoft does, but won't dent the way most people think of the company.
Still, there's a big ray of hope here. The fact that Microsoft was willing and able to make these changes could signal that more are on the way. If Microsoft can keep shaking things up and continue to show that things really are different now, eventually people will begin to notice and perhaps change their minds about the company. And then it truly won't be your father's Microsoft any more.