Tech has moved into an era of experimentation. As the blistering pace of digital's second wave has slowed and markets have matured, companies are casting about for novelty. Just recently we've seen phones that fold in half, devices with two screens, and phones with batteries a couple of inches of thick. These days, it seems, anything original goes.
In this interesting time, Microsoft finds itself in a strange place. (Full Disclosure: I have worked elsewhere on a podcast sponsored by Microsoft.) As computing morphs into new forms, the company's stock is flying high; its financials are solid; and in markets like cloud computing, enterprise software, and even consumer hardware, its future looks strong.
But Microsoft's many attempts to modernize its flagship program, Windows, to make a mobile play and cement the operating system's position in a post-PC era have fallen remarkably flat. As the rest of tech inches toward the next big thing, it's not obvious that Microsoft can produce the meticulous user experience and hardware innovation it needs to reinvent Windows for the future.
The company certainly appears poised to try. As Tom Warren at The Verge reports, Microsoft is hard at work on something called Windows Lite, a stripped down version of Windows aimed at simple computers and foldable devices. If the tech world is getting weird, Microsoft is throwing its hat into the ring, too.
Thus far, attempting to simplify the bloated software seems to be Microsoft's primary idea. Windows 8 tacked on a touchscreen-friendly interface, but it alienated long-time users. Windows 10 shifted to a model called Onecore, where the desktop and mobile versions of Windows shared the same basic technology. While the desktop version was initially well-received, Windows 10 Mobile might generously be described as a disaster. It was clunky, performed poorly, and had few apps. Microsoft unceremoniously abandoned the mobile market, instead preferring to make software for competing platforms, like its popular iOS and Android email client, Outlook.
Windows Lite looks to invert this trajectory by starting with a very simple, stripped-down operating system. Part of what plagues Windows is that it needs to run apps written last week alongside those written 20 years ago. Windows Lite looks to expunge that need to support legacy apps, instead focusing on a simple design and optimizing it for new forms of computing.
Yet reason for skepticism remains. True, Microsoft has proven it has the capacity to innovate. Products like its Hololens augmented reality headset have drawn cautiously optimistic previews, and its Surface line pulled in nearly $2 billion last quarter, cementing the hybrid computers as a brand to be reckoned with.
What has been frustrating about the company, however, is its often poor execution, especially in the consumer space. Its failures in mobile are accompanied by an ineffective foray into health gear (since abandoned), an attempt at a music streaming service (also abandoned), and a simpler version of Windows called Windows 10 S that only ran store apps (surprise! also abandoned).
But in a world in which large tech companies thrive on cultivating complete ecosystems of software and hardware, Microsoft cannot afford to give up. Rather, as computing shifts to mobile and other light devices, Microsoft must provide an alternative to Google's Chromebook and Apple's iPad to present its vision for the future of computing. And while Surface is doing well, it's hamstrung by the weight of Windows 10. Microsoft needs something new.
So: Windows Lite. What it promises is a simple, clean design running only approved apps from a store, much like current mobile devices. That is promising in theory, but in order to make it work, Microsoft desperately needs Windows Lite to focus on a few key strengths.
First, unlike Windows Mobile, it must perform well, both in terms of speed and battery life.
Secondly, aesthetics cannot be an afterthought. Save a brief flash in Windows Phone, Microsoft has played second fiddle to Apple and Google when it comes to design. Performance and appearance together define the user experience of any new OS. Grand ideas do nothing for Microsoft if they're compromised by poor execution in which a fluid user interface and well-designed interactions are left by the wayside.
Lastly, any new operating system needs new hardware, because tech's present experimentation phase is seeking the next major form of computing. Reports of a foldable device paired with Windows Lite are intriguing, if perhaps a bit muddied (merely adding a screen without some sort of specific, tangible benefit will lead straight to failure). Microsoft needs some compelling message behind its new design, perhaps drawing on its mission to be "the productivity company."
Microsoft is reportedly working on a variety of hardware prototypes, from larger two-screen devices like those demoed by Intel last year to a rumored smaller device that signals a renewed stab at mobile. These concepts could be great — but only if Microsoft manages to nail the user experience with a polish and attention to detail they have thus far missed.
In this era of experimentation, only truly great execution can win out.