At some point in the relatively near future, Windows RT and the new Windows Store may reach a critical tipping point. When that moment arrives, it is going to trigger the final stages of a transformation which has been taking place inside Microsoft for about 5 years now.
The Productivity Caterpillar
Microsoft makes money when people want to use PCs to be productive – to literally produce things. Office and other business software are the largest portion of Microsoft’s profits with the Windows division coming in at a close 2nd.
And that model will continue to be valid because there will always be people and corporations where productivity is the focus and the goal, but in the consumer market that model is diminishing.
Consumers (as their name implies) consume. They might produce an email or a blog post now and then but you don’t need a special piece of business software to do that. As such, consumers have always been free to choose any OS they want; but decades of ubiquitous Windows dominance made Windows and the PC the only affordable solution for either paradigm; regardless as to whether you were looking to produce or consume, you had a Windows PC.
The post-PC revolution is what you get when consumers (who do not need the complexity or overhead of a productivity environment) are given a choice: you can either continue to consume at your desk with a keyboard and a mouse and a big monitor connected to a box sitting under that desk, or… you can carry this sleek little device around. As it so happens Apple is really, really good at making sleek little devices you can carry around. Which is not surprising when you consider they had a lot of practice in doing exactly that. Ironically because Microsoft was so dominant in the PC market, Apple had to find something else to do in order to make money: so how about iPods? People loved iPods. And the iPod led to the iPod Touch, and the iPod touch led to the iPhone, and the iPhone led to the post-PC revolution where consumers now had a sleek little device they could carry around capable of doing most if not all of the consumption they were doing on the PC. If you’re a consumer, an iPhone or an iPad isn’t just a luxury/vanity device, it’s a desktop replacement.
So about 5 years ago Microsoft realized that, when it comes to consumers, they were living in a trap of their own design. They looked at their next Windows Mobile offering “Photon” and knew it would never compete with the iPhone. Windows RT was still a long way away, so they rummaged through their R&D drawer, grabbed XNA and a half-baked Silverlight 2.0 – two things sitting around not doing much for the company – and got to work on “Windows Phone System 7″.
The Windows Phone Chrysalis
At first, it didn’t seem like Microsoft was bothering to react to the post-PC era at all. The only visible signs of life from outside the company was an inexplicably breakneck pace at which Silverlight iterations were coming out. Developers targeting the plugin could barely get an app out the door before a new version of Silverlght would show up with a whole bunch of new features. And, in hindsight, we notice a parallel between the release of Windows Phone 7 and this very, very long period of sudden, abrupt silence on the Silverlight front. Eventually, finally, Silverilght 5 was released, and to no surprise it would be the last version of Silverlight. It’s usefulness to the company was over.
Windows Phone 7 would be a an emergency stop-gap measure to at least appear relevant in the post-PC market. Microsoft was sticking their foot in the door and buying time. It turns out they had been up to something which they finally revealed at BUILD 2011:
Windows RT would not support Silveright or XNA. Windows RT had it’s own Windows Store and would not support the Windows Phone Marketplace. Windows RT was a new set of Microsoft guts with it’s own development stack. The Windows DNA had been totally rearranged. This metamorphosis was almost complete at BUILD, and this brings us close to that event-horizon moment that will occur once Windows RT and the Windows Store reaches that critical level of adoption.
Microsoft is in a delicate position right now because they are eager to shed the Silverlight & XNA Windows Phone chrysalis they’ve been incubating inside of. They’re ready to come out of the shell and try their new Windows RT wings. However, Microsoft’s erratic behavior during the past few years has shaken developer confidence quite a bit. And consumer confidence in Microsoft has never been particularly high to begin with. If Microsoft were to simply shut off the Windows Phone 7.X environment they risk serious blowback from yet another “reboot”, shattering what little faith anyone has left.
But once (and if) they can get a critical level of users on Windows RT and a sufficient number of apps in the Microsoft Store, they can completely cut ties with a survivable amount of political fallout. If they jump the gun and cut these ties too soon, they’ll never make it. They need to be cautious now – Windows Phone 8 could have been a pure RT device that only accessed the Windows Store, but with just a few thousand apps it wasn’t politically feasible to downgrade users from a Marketplace with 100k apps to one with 20k. They wisely chose to retain the Silverlight/XNA/Windows Phone Marketplace for at least 1 more generation.
But once they feel confident enough in the adoption of Windows RT, that confidence will trigger the remaining stages of Microsoft’s transformation. In order to “fly”, they must:
- Shut down the Windows Phone Marketplace. Windows Phone Marketplace Apps not ported to the Windows Store will simply vanish.
- Make Windows Phone, in effect, a 4″ Windows RT tablet utilizing the Windows Store.
- Get Xbox running Windows RT with no XNA support and no backward-compatibility with Xbox Live Indie Games. Instead, all developers – indie and corporate alike – can publish apps to the Windows Store for not only Xbox but any and all ecosystem devices.
The end goal is to have all desktops, laptops, phones, tablets and consoles running the same OS and accessing the same Marketplace. This enables a new, agile update strategy to the entire ecosystem, it streamlines their software pipeline and it offers software solutions to both consumers and the enterprise. But in order to pull it off Microsoft must eliminate XNA, Silverlight, the Windows Phone Marketplace and Xbox Live Indie Games. This is already happening, but the proverbial event horizon – the point of no return where the remainder of this process will happen very quickly – will not begin until the Windows Store accumulates enough apps (whatever that number may be) and Windows RT has enough adoption to justify moving forward with it.
Hedge Your Bets
I’ve halted Arsanth development for the current Windows Phone platform. I’ll likely continue Arsanth as an HTML5 app instead, potentially with a node.js backend. I’m not doing this because I think Microsoft is doomed – but I also don’t think they’re a sure thing. I can’t control or predict whether Microsoft will win or lose.
HTML5 has the advantage of running anywhere, in addition to the ability of running natively on desktops, laptops, tablets, phones and probably Xbox in Microsoft’s inevitable future ecosystem.
It is also my hope that Google and Apple will follow suit and treat HTML5 as a native language on their respective platforms. Ivory Tower perhaps, but not entirely out of the question. Live Tiles are nice and all, but HTML5 as a native language is an actual innovation the other players I hope will copy. Personally, I find the need to learn Java or Objective-C a barrier to entry into the Android and iOS markets. I have a limited amount of time to dive deep into new platforms, and HTML5 seems to be the best balance for me between app development, career, and the inherent stability in avoiding Microsof’s next proprietary stack.
Personally I think HTML5 is the best way to hedge one’s development bets for the ultimately unknowable, but reasonably predictable future. The reasonably predictable future is that Apple will continue to make pretty good products and retain a relgious following, Android will continue to activate a bajillion devices a day, and Microsoft will probably never be the cool device everyone wants; but, you never know. When Xbox entered the console market, Sony was an unstoppable force shattering console sales records. The Playstation was sitting on Nintendo’s cracked skull, feasting on Sega’s corpse. Xbox was the laughable 98lb weakling, but they stuck to it and became a reasonably valid player. Microsoft might end up winning a good deal of market share in spite of their terminal lack of consumer savvy.
I don’t know whether Microsoft is going to fail or thrive in the post-PC era. It’s hard to say until they’ve got a cohesive WinRT ecosystem up and running and matured with Xbox and desktops and tablets and phones all sharing the same DNA. No one’s actually done that yet – at least not to the extent Microsoft can potentially do it, from consoles to mobile to desktop, no one else has that spectrum. But whether that will be something consumers have to have is yet to be seen.
What I am pretty sure of is that there is writing on the wall for the current Windows Phone platform & Marketplace. They’re temporary measures and a dead end. It’s all about the Windows RT ecosystem and if it fails, I’ll be no worse off for having written an app or three in HTML5.