Microsoft Strategy Update: Windows RT and Windows Phone

Microsoft Strategy Update: Windows RT and Windows Phone

Can two turkeys make an eagle?

In this second look at some of the information Microsoft provided at its Financial Analysts Meeting, we see how Microsoft is evolving Windows RT and Windows Phone into something that I think makes a lot more sense: A single product line with a single runtime and app model.

It's fair to say that while both products have yet to take off appreciably in the marketplace—Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer yesterday referred to the firm's slowness in entering the smart phone market as his "biggest regret"—both target very important markets. Hardware makers will sell over 1 billion smart phones this year, three times the market for PCs. And these firms will sell hundreds of millions of tablets this year as well, a market that could exceed the size of the PC market as soon as the end of 2013. Microsoft desperately needs to be part of that.

So how do they get there?

To find out the answer, let's turn to Terry Myerson, the former lead on Windows Phone who now somehow oversees all of Microsoft's OS development. As with Apple before it—Craig Federighi this past year took over all OS development at that firm in the past year, combining previously separate Mac OS X and iOS efforts—Microsoft is clearly looking for synergy. And that synergy will come at both a high-level—common or similar user experiences across major platforms like Windows, Phone, Server, Xbox, and Office—but also at a very low-level, in the OS, where the company could certainly do some consolidating.

So let's look at both. High-level and low-level.

Regarding the former, here's what he said when asked about how or whether Microsoft would create a "common development platform across multiple screens," edited heavily for readability.

"We've ... brought all the OS groups together at the company," he said, "and have organized all of our efforts in the operating system area around three key beliefs. The first is that we really should have one silicon interface for all of our devices, one set of developer APIs on all of our devices, and [that] all of the apps we bring to end users should be available on all of our devices."

"The second is that all of our devices are becoming more cloud-powered.  So whether we're branding them Windows or Xbox, we really need one core service which is enabling all of our devices."

"And the third is that each of our devices require a tailored experience to be really special for the customer, whether that's a three-inch phone, or it's a 9-inch tablet, or a 14-inch clamshell, or a 60-inch television playing Xbox games, we want to facilitate the creation of a common, a familiar experience across all of those devices, but a fundamentally tailored and unique experience for each device."

"So our team is now organized in this way.  We had a core team that will bring those silicon interfaces together, bring those developer platforms together, approach delivery of apps to the customers in a common way.  We have one team delivering the core services that will light up our devices.  And then we have satellite teams each focused on each of the device categories, so each of them can be reflective of what the customer expects in that place."

At a low-level, Microsoft currently has three Windows client operating systems, Windows 8.x (x86), Windows RT 8.x (ARM), and Windows Phone (ARM). And given the terrible performance of each of these products over the past year, it's natural that some are wondering whether some consolidation is in order. Myerson was asked about Windows RT in particular, though he kind of punted the question by pointing out that the new version, Windows RT 8.1, would benefit from working on a " next generation of ARM silicon," meaning the TEGRA 4 that's in Surface 2, and the inclusion of Outlook RT. All this tells us is that for the very short term, Microsoft is simply pushing ahead with Windows RT as before: It's an OS for media tablets that for some reason runs Office too.

But he did offer this hint.

"As phones extend into tablets, expect us to see many more ARM tablets, Windows ARM tablets in the future."

The "phones extending into tablets" bit refers to phablets, which are smart phones with very large screens, generally 5 to 6 inches. And as we know, Nokia and other handset makers are intending to ship such devices, along with the Windows Phone 8 GDR3 software update that enables 1080p screens and other supporting technologies, in Q4 2013. We also know that Microsoft will ship an 8-inch Windows RT-based Surface "mini" tablet in Q4 2013, and that this device will run on a Qualcomm ARM architecture. So between Windows Phone phablets and Windows RT mini-tablets, we have a kind of interesting gray area. It's not clear where the phone ends and the tablet begins.

But think back to Myerson's previous comment about "one silicon interface, one set of developer APIs, and the same apps" on all of its devices. That's one runtime, some future version of the Windows Runtime. That's Windows RT and Windows Phone—which both run on ARM—being combined into essentially the same platform, running the same apps, and using the same developer environment. In other words, that's just common sense.

Today, Windows RT makes no sense as a general purpose PC operating system. It's Windows without the biggest selling point for Windows: That incredible collection of desktop applications and compatible devices. Microsoft bundles full Office today with Windows RT because no one would buy a device product called Windows if it didn't come with Office. (This is why Office Mobile ships on Windows Phone.) One has to think that a future Metro version of Office, Touch-first Office, will eventually be what comes with Windows RT. And that when that happens—next year, I bet—Windows RT will have a more comfortable and purposeful mission. It will become the devices-based version of Windows. For media tablets. And for phablets. It will be the basis for the next major version of Windows Phone. And they will run the same apps.

That's how I see this unfolding. And while Myerson wasn't particularly forthcoming, I think it's fair to read that as the evolution that’s coming.

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