Over the last few years, Microsoft has been bombarded from nearly every direction. Whether it be the vicious assault from Apple and iOS, the unstoppable force that is Google, or the ever-increasing array of quality open-source operating systems and applications, it seems Microsoft is in a constant battle for its life on multiple fronts. I may be dramaticizing a bit, but all of that is true—no doubt about it. And if Microsoft continues to let opportunities pass them by, the company’s days as one of the leaders in tech will be numbered. But all of this talk that Microsoft is irrelevant now is just insane.
It’s easy to be enamored by disruptive products that change the way people think and use technology. The iPhone and iPad were clearly disruptive products, as was Google. The iPhone has forever changed the smartphone market, the iPad redefined what a tablet should be, and Google changed the way we use the web. There are numerous other non-Microsoft products that have done similar things in other market segments as well. And when these products hit - and hit big - it seems that many folks are quick to dismiss entrenched incumbents like Microsoft and declare them no longer relevant. They say things like "They’re too big and too slow to react" or "the company’s culture doesn’t foster innovation," etc. Hogwash.
To some extent, statements like those have an element of truth. Let’s take a step back, though, and remember that Microsoft’s relevance doesn’t necessarily require the company to be nimble. Innovation is in the eye of the beholder. Take the Xbox 360, for example. That piece of hardware has been dominating the console market for about seven years now. In fact, just this past Friday, Microsoft sold 750,000 Xbox 360 consoles. That’s huge for a product that’s been around in one form or another for the better part of a decade. Microsoft did that by constantly advancing the platform and continuing to innovate with the Xbox’s software and adjacent products like the Kinect. For now and the foreseeable future, Microsoft’s got the game console market locked up tight.
Although it’s technically the new kid on the block, Bing is now No. 2 in search behind Google and has been slowly, but consistently, gaining ground. Microsoft is not likely to ever catch Google in search, but they may not have to if Bing becomes the default alternative. Then there’s Microsoft Office. Office is about as ubiquitous an application suite as there ever has been. Everyone from grade school students to large enterprise relies on Microsoft Office and no one has fully embraced any of the alternatives. Why? Because they are inferior.
All of this talk of irrelevance revolves around the ever-changing PC and the smartphone markets. Windows Phone has yet to gain any serious traction in the smartphone space. It was not until a few weeks ago, however, with the release of Windows Phone 8 that Microsoft was really ready to do battle. Windows Phone 7 had some things going for it, but Windows Phone 8 is clearly a better product and it’s running on devices that can finally compete with the best from Apple and Google; Windows Phone 8’s app ecosystem is also far better than it was just a year ago. It’s late to the game, but Windows Phone 8 is not irrelevant. It’s going to be another year or so before we have a clear idea of Windows Phone’s fate, but early sales indicators are fairly positive, especially outside the U.S.
As for the PC and Windows, the reports of their death are greatly exaggerated. Initial sales figures for Windows 8 put it out in front of Windows 7 at the same stage. Intel’s also got some killer hardware coming down the pike for both the low-power and high-performance sectors, which will advance the "WinTel" platform further and push it into even more form factors. The products may look different and we may interface with them differently moving forward, but the PC is far from dead and the vast majority of PCs sold will be running Windows. Period. When that’s no longer the case, gaming no longer matters, and people stop using Word, then you can call Microsoft irrelevant.
Marco Chiappetta is a freelance journalist specializing in PC and consumer device hardware reviews. Or in his words, Marco is a "self-confessed keyboard geek." In addition to covering Microsoft for Network World, Marco's work also appears in PC World and he is an editor at Hothardware.com.