Lyons on the Moon without Apple and Google, and Microsoft Could be Coming Back?

Monday, April 9th 2012. | Internet News

Microsoft-CorporationCould Microsoft ever be cool again? The company has been out of it for so long that a comeback is hard to imagine. But by some miracle this seems to be happening, and people are starting to take notice. “Suddenly Microsoft is the Hippest Tech Company Around,” says the Atlantic Wire in an article that claims recent stumbles by Apple (China labor woes) and Google (privacy concerns) make Microsoft seem like nice guys by comparison.

In an experiment I called “Month of Microsoft,” I’ve spent the past four weeks using nothing but Microsoft products—Windows computers, Windows phones, Xbox, Bing, Internet Explorer—instead of my usual lineup of Apple and Google products. It’s been six years since I used any Microsoft products on a regular basis. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The verdict? Microsoft is making some really nice products these days. What it still can’t do is tie all these products into a single, well-integrated ecosystem. Don’t worry; nobody else can either. But that’s where everyone is headed. If Microsoft can pull off this integration, it could very well give Apple a run for its money.

What everyone is after these days is a kind of single, unified experience where all content (music collection, movies owned or rented, plus home movies, photos, documents) is kept up on the Internet cloud, in a single place.

A series of devices—phone, tablet, laptop computer, desktop computer, TV—can fetch any of that content from the cloud. Watch a movie on the phone, then pause it and watch the rest of it on the TV. Edit a document on a work computer, store it to the cloud, work on it on a tablet during the train ride home, then work on it again with a laptop on the couch at night.

All this has to happen seamlessly. And it must be incredibly simple and easy to use.

So far, no tech company can deliver this. But Microsoft has all the pieces. It just needs to bring them together.

To be sure, it’s tough to think of Microsoft as an underdog. Last quarter the company did $20.9 billion in revenue and cleared $6.6 billion in net profit. For the current fiscal year, which ends in June, analysts estimate Microsoft will generate $74 billion in revenue.

But most of that comes from sales of Windows, Office, Exchange, and other products to big corporate customers. In mobile phones and tablets, Microsoft can’t even be called an also-ran; it’s nowhere. In search it lags far behind Google.

In email and web browsers, Microsoft has big market share, but its products are seen as outdated, stuff used only by non-techies who don’t know any better.

Some of that is a bad rap, but it’s partly well-deserved, as Microsoft itself argues in a new self-effacing ad campaign for its Internet Explorer 9 Web browser called “The Browser You Love(d) to Hate.” One slogan goes like this: “Curious? It’s good now. No, really.”

There’s some truth to this campaign. I’d urge anyone to take a fresh look at Internet Explorer, as well as these other Microsoft products:

XBOX 360

Microsoft’s Xbox 360 started out as a game console, but has become much more, delivering TV shows, sports channels, access to Netflix and Hulu. You can stream your music from a Windows PC through your Xbox into your stereo. Or, here’s a cool thing—you can buy a Zune Music Pass ($10 per month, $100 per year) and listen to anything you want. This works on your PC and Windows phone, but I found it most useful on the Xbox. Feel like listening to some Coltrane? They’ve got more albums than I knew existed. There’s even a “Smart DJ” feature that will make playlists for you.

But the best thing is the Kinect controller, which is by far the most advanced user interface in the consumer market. It lets you flip through pages just by swiping your hand in the air, or change tasks or search for shows just by giving voice commands.

Kinect is amazing. It’s so good, in fact, that Farhad Manjoo in Slate recently wrote that Apple need not bother trying to “revolutionize” the TV market, since Microsoft has already taken care of that.

So, OK: in the living room, Microsoft rules. Or it could, if it did a better job of selling Xbox to regular folks like me, as opposed to hardcore gamers. One thing that might help would be for Microsoft to come up with a remote control other than the gamer joystick thing that Xbox comes with today. And maybe redo the user interface to make the TV applications more front-and-center, instead of being buried inside a menu system.


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