Fighting the blue monster

Whatever shape the buttons on your laptop, Microsoft has spent the last few days at PDC revealing some very interesting ideas about what the future of computing may hold.

Yet, with every news story – about the release of an abstracted operating system idea, about a new operating system with some nice looking UI elements, or about web-based office applications –  the great unwashed of the internet can do no more than revert to tedious Apple/Windows zealotry. The first comment will say ‘Why do you stick with Microsoft, Microsoft is shit, look at Vista’, the second will say ‘Give Microsoft a chance, they’ve done a lot of cool stuff’, the third will say, ‘My iPhone is very shiny’ etc etc.

It’s just not very interesting.

You can’t boil down these million pound companies to ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And once again it’s easy to see echos of what Hugh McLeod started with the Blue Monster idea, encouraging Microsoft staff to feel empowered to represent themselves rather than being defined by the media and their detractors.

Apple clearly rules the art of the product announcement, although I have not seen that done well without the masterful Jobs. Microsoft – sometimes to their downfall – is better at speaking with the technical community, which can position technology prowess over usability  and delight in products, although they’ve started to address that with the excellent 0ffice 2007 and the new Surface offering, both of which put innovation in customer experience at the heart of the product.

What we see onstage at PDC, Mix etc is genuinely enthused Microsoft staff (in various degrees of chino and trainer-wearing geekiness), expressing their honest passion for the subject of technology and how it can be transformational. Amongst all that are some very interesting ideas:

1. Life in the datacentre – it’ll be hard for companies to get this but harder still for developers. The shift in programming paradigm is much more radical than required changes in governance (although potentially complex, espcially around jurisdiction) and user experience (often negligable)

(Also well worth looking at this week’s Economist special feature on Cloud computing, its effect on business models, its effect on innovation, and its potential transformative effect on emerging economies.)

2. Software AND Serivces – not Software OR services

3. The speed of touch (and multi-touch) adoption is accelerating rapidly

4. Performance at last identified as key ingredient of (Vista) ‘user experience’. Suggstions are not just what Windows 7 will run quickly, but that it could boot in a matter of seconds. These realities are a vital part of MS regaining the reputation it earned when NT4.0 made all other OSs on the market at the time look like they were from a different decade.

5. Many of the new UI features of Windows 7 were explained directly in terms of ethnographic research (e.g. users have multiple windows open but cycle between them), users need to search across multiple drives / devices / users want to be able to re-arrange task bar items, users need to be able to look inside tabs inside browsers for quick preview). It is great news that Microsoft has put research at the heart of design and innovation and it will be very exciting to see how these improve the overall usage experience, especially as we know that some relatively minor changes can have a dramatic impact.

 

Will Microsoft ever have an Apple-style unveiling: stage-managed and high-octane? I don’t think so, and in a way, I hope they don’t. As a company which necessarily has so many constituents they should define themselves by not just what they do directly for consumers, but how they support designers and developers in building better end solutions. And those answers simply aren’t simple.

And, whether you love ’em or hate ’em, you can look as long as you like at events like PDC, and you won’t see anything but a desire to be doing stuff better. Unfortunately the pantomime villian tag just won’t fit.

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