Consumer Apps and Services: Microsoft's Often-Overlooked Crown Jewels

Consumer Apps and Services: Microsoft's Often-Overlooked Crown Jewels

Can't we all just get along?

While Microsoft's business offerings have long dominated the conversation around the software giant, I'm increasingly excited by the firm's growing set of integrated consumer services that work via apps on all popular mobile device platforms. It is here, I think, that Microsoft's "mobile first, cloud first" mantra is most clearly seen, because the services that impact end users directly are those that make the most sense on mobile devices.

But here's the tragedy: Most consumers, I bet, rarely even consider Microsoft's mobile app and web services offerings. Most don't even know they exist.

Part of the reason for this is no doubt because of Microsoft's reputation as a provider of business technology products and services. And while it's fair to point out that the majority of the firm's revenues do come from business customers, that doesn't diminish the quality of its consumer-oriented offerings, or the impact this company has with individuals, through apps and on the web.

Another part of the reason is that as our computing habits have changed, and consumers have embraced non-Microsoft platforms like Android and iOS, many simply assume that Microsoft has no presence on those mobile platforms. Some don't even think through it that far: They simply use Apple's offerings exclusively on iPhone and Google's offerings exclusively on Android. It's an easy thing to say that a user of any mobile platform will get the best experiences on that company's own platform. But that's no longer universally true. And it's easy to mix and match regardless of which platform(s) you choose.

This situation Microsoft finds itself in today is understandable. But it's also too bad because of the major platform providers only Microsoft is offering a truly integrated set of apps and services that work across all of the platforms people are really using. And these aren't just standalone services—email, online storage, office productivity, music, video, whatever—these services also integrate with each other, and they do so across platforms. The other platform makers are more concerned with lock-in, not in making their services work everywhere.

(There are exceptions, obviously. Google makes a lot of its services available on iOS through apps, for example. But beyond web apps, it ignores Windows utterly.)

Inevitably in this kind of discussion a few contentious points come up.

Microsoft, many will argue, has been somewhat forced down this path because its only truly successful computing platform, Windows, has seen no traction at all in the new mobile computing world. And sure enough: Microsoft pushed its "Windows only" and then "Windows first" strategies well beyond the point at which doing so made any sense at all. But that was the past, and the Microsoft of today is unique in its broad support for other platforms. I'm interested in what's happening now, not what happened in 2004.

Also, any time the terms "Microsoft" and "other platforms" comes up, we inevitably hear from the pro-Windows crowd because they get anxious and upset any time Microsoft supports a non-Windows platform with some core app or service, and especially so when that other platform gets an app, or a new feature, or whatever, before Windows. To these people I say, no offense, really. But you need to wake up. And grow up.

Android is already running away with the top platform crown in this "mobile first, cloud first" era, and Microsoft artificially propping up Windows (and Windows Phone) with exclusive apps and services not only won't change things in the slightest, it may actually aggravate the problem. Windows is going to settle into whatever market/usage share level it settles into, and, whatever the level it's a distant second behind Android no matter how you slice it. Likewise, if the situation gets any worse, Apple's iOS (or perhaps iOS combined with Mac) could surpass Windows this decade as well, leaving Microsoft in third place, a potential also-ran. If the firm's apps and services aren't everywhere, Microsoft is sunk, and so is everyone who relies on those services. That's all of us, by the way.

You already know the world is changing. And if you're still seeing things through a 1990's-style Microsoft lens, my advice is simple: Embrace or at least acknowledge the shifts that everyone else on earth is already making. Someone isn't necessarily stupid because they've chosen an iPhone, no matter what you think of that decision. Likewise, Android isn't horrible just because you think it's a mess, or fragmented, or whatever the complaint is this week. These are mainstream platforms that rival and even surpass the popularity of Windows in its heyday. Even platforms like Fire OS, Mac and Chrome OS have their place in today's heterogeneous world.

My expectation is that we'll see Microsoft improve its already considerable support for all of these platforms, in a way that is commensurate with their relative success, moving forward. Since I am interested primarily in personal technology, I will not be ignoring these changes. More to the point, I intend to closely and regularly cover Microsoft's consumer offerings—and in a cross-platform matter when it makes sense to do so—going forward. This is a big focus for me.

To that end, I'll be examining the state of Microsoft apps/services like, OneDrive, Office 365 Home and Personal, Skype, Bing and MSN, Xbox Music and Xbox Video, and more, separately, in the weeks ahead, and try to understand where Microsoft is in this ongoing shift to "mobile first, cloud first." I'll try to figure out when using these services makes more sense on rival platforms, especially, than the similar services offered by those platform makers and by third parties. And yes, I'll be looking at how these apps and services often are better on Windows, because sometimes they still are.

This is the new normal. And we all need to embrace it.

Just so we're clear: My personal preference is heavily on the Windows/Microsoft side of the fence. I use and will continue to use Windows PCs. I use and prefer Windows Phone. But as you must know, I also use other devices. I have the latest Android handsets and iPhone (5S), and will get an iPhone 6 (or whatever it's called) as soon as I can. I have multiple iPads (Air, mini with Retina Display) and an iPod touch, and a new MacBook Air and Chromebook are on the way. I use various Android tablets regularly, and will continue doing so (and in fact need to figure out a full-sized Android tablet soon). I feel like all this experience with these platforms, and with accessory devices like Apple TV, Chromecast, and related services, gives me a much more well-rounded understanding of the state of the industry, and of these competing ecosystems. So when I choose to use Windows, I do so not from tunnel vision or inertia but rather because I fully understand the alternatives and have certain needs. I think this is the right approach.

Next: Let's see how is doing.

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