Why Microsoft Is Making Every Device Equally Important

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

When imagining the kinds of devices that you’re going to be using on a daily basis five, ten, or fifteen years from now, most companies are pretty opinionated. Just about everyone in the technology industry thinks that the smartphone will remain the dominant device for the near future.

So many smartphone makers are betting on more-powerful phones, ones that will anticipate your needs and your activities and offer up information before you even have a chance to search for it. Companies focused on computers are building lighter, more cloud-dependent machines that are increasingly versatile and portable, and offer easy ways to sync your content and activities your smartphone, and perhaps a tablet.

But Microsoft isn’t choosing a single vision of the devices you’ll use in the future. Like other tech companies, it seems to acknowledge that the smartphone is expected to dominate. But unlike other technology giants — like Apple with the iPad and the Mac, or Google with its Android tablets and Chromebooks — Microsoft isn’t clearly championing just one device as the runner-up and companion to the smartphone. Farhad Manjoo reports for The New York Times that under CEO, Satya Nadella, Microsoft is embracing “a fragmented vision of the future, in which no single device, or even a single category of devices, reigns supreme.”

Manjoo characterizes the plan as “rule-breaking,” “a bit crazy,” and “rife with internal and external tensions.” But Microsoft is committing to the vision, and at a recent event, unveiled a wide range of devices, including the hybrid Surface Book, Surface Pro 4, and Microsoft Band 2, as well as the first smartphones designed for Windows 10 and the Display Dock, an accessory that effectively turns your Windows 10 phone into a PC.

Manjoo writes that he has personally tested the Surface Book and the Surface Pro 4, and writes of the experience with the new devices, “The more I used Microsoft’s new machines, the more I thought that perhaps no single kind of device is destined to win the war for second place to the smartphone.”

Perhaps the widely-accepted idea that there will be a second-place winner behind the all-important smartphone is erroneous, a possibility that becomes easier to understand when you consider the extensive variety of desktop computers, laptop computers, tablets, and hybrid devices that are made by different manufacturers, all for different demographics and intended for different purposes and use cases.

Microsoft seems prepared for a world in which such chaotic variety reigns. Perhaps more important to the strategy than the company’s line of hardware is its software, the formidable Windows platform that consists of both the world-dominating Windows operating system as well as the software that was originally built for Windows, but is now appearing on other companies’ platforms, such as Microsoft’s apps for Apple’s iOS devices.

Manjoo explains of the strategy, “No other company in the industry operates quite this expansively.” While Apple makes hardware and software, the company’s software mostly works only on its own devices, not on other companies’ platforms. And while Google gives away its Android and Chrome operating systems for free to other companies, it makes only a small line of devices that it rarely sells for a profit and promotes with only minimal marketing.

But Microsoft is breaking all of the rules set by other companies’ precedents. Its Surface line competes with PCs made by other manufacturers, to whom it licenses its software, and the iOS version of its Office suite improves the Apple devices that compete with devices made by Microsoft and its hardware partners.

There are costs associated with Microsoft’s strategy, like the mixed signals the company sends to users when following up the “no-compromise” laptop-replacing Surface Pro 3 with the more-traditionally-styled Surface Book.

In Manjoo’s estimation, the strategy could also afford Microsoft some major benefits. Microsoft could become a dominant hardware manufacturer, and uncover new markets — like the hybrid tablet that can be used as a PC, which Microsoft incrementally demonstrated the utility of with the Surface line. And Microsoft’s efforts could push countless PC makers to pay attention to user experience, and to create thoughtfully-crafted hardware that make people excited about Microsoft’s software.

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