Guest Opinion: Windows 10, Innovation Not Included

A longtime Windows developer and Microsoft partner looks for groundbreaking, compelling features in the new OS and finds capitulation, not innovation.

Back in 2010, Microsoft had been left behind by the mobile revolution. Its Windows Mobile product, which never really caught on, looked tired and out of date compared to Apple's iOS and Google's Android. Many people were predicting the death of the PC and with it Windows, an OS whose time had passed. The latter was always a ridiculous idea, but that Microsoft had a major problem was not.

For 15 years I inhabited the Microsoft world. As a developer, I used its tools and technology. As a business owner, I was a Microsoft partner and one of the first BizSpark partners signing up start-ups. My company had a good relationship with Microsoft UK and we evangelized for it at events and in blogs and articles. I once owned a Zune. In short, I drank the Kool-Aid. I'm still a believer. I'm also a paid-up Lumia-carrying Windows Phone user.

Microsoft says that it jumped Windows 9 because 10 is such a major advance on Windows 8. "It wouldn't be right to call it Windows 9," Terry Myerson (head of the OS group) said. Windows 10 is a nice OS and will please a lot of people, and it's already getting good reviews, but for all the hype, there's no "Wow!" factor. Windows 10 has been an effective box-ticking exercise to keep the core customer base happy, but for me it's disappointing that it lacks any innovation. Because innovation is something that Microsoft has been good at in recent years.

Microsoft Innovates with Windows Phone and Windows 8
When Microsoft launched Windows Phone with its new flat design and tiled interface, it was one of Microsoft's finest moments of innovation -- the perfect balance between the simplicity of iOS and the customizability of Android. The flat design was so good that even Apple used it for the next version of iOS. While market share doesn't bear it out, for me Windows Phone is the best of the three big OSes.

Two years later, Microsoft released Windows 8, which also used the tiled UI together with the traditional Windows desktop. Let's remember the challenge that Microsoft had in 2012. iOS and Android were selling to consumers who were happy to buy an entirely new device with little consideration for the applications that they otherwise used. People wanted an iPad to surf the Web, e-mail and run apps. Customers didn't expect iOS to run on their MacBook if they had one.

Microsoft's situation was fundamentally different. The company had to build an OS that would not only work well on new touch devices but also run the legacy applications that individuals and businesses had been using and relying on for many years. And support old non-touch hardware. This was something that Microsoft had failed to achieve before (in previous attempts at touch-screen systems) and others hadn't even tried (Apple still hasn't). By merging the new UI from Windows Phone with the traditional desktop, Microsoft found another incredibly innovative solution.

I used Windows 8 from the first preview, and while a couple of things took a little getting used to (such as no Start menu), it was an excellent solution. For example, I could use a single device for both work, with all of my traditional productivity applications (keyboard/mouse attached) and in leisure time when it was easy to use as a pure touch-screen tablet for Web, e-mail, social and so on.

Not everything was perfect (Windows RT?), but what it was attempting was radical and new. On traditional hardware, the experience could be awkward, and perhaps Windows 7 was easier. And there was the Start button issue that troubled many people. Perhaps the main problem was that Microsoft had innovated too far and too soon for its core customer base. Windows 8.1 did a nice job of addressing sensible user concerns such as bringing back the Start button and making it more keyboard- and mouse-friendly.

Just Windows 7 with a New Start Menu
Windows 10 is, on reflection, what Windows 8 should have been: a bridge between Windows 7 and the more radical innovation of Windows 8. For most people who be getting their Windows 10 upgrade, what they'll experience is Windows 7 with a new Start menu (Microsoft's launch site seems to accept this). Nothing like the innovation that Windows 8 represented is here; this is more Windows 7.5.

There are some features that Microsoft is making a big deal about, such as the Universal Windows Platform. But will users be blown away by it? No. Users won't notice. Neither will they notice that Windows 10 on their PC is Windows 10 on their phone because their phone is most likely an iPhone. That one can plug a Windows 10 Phone into a big screen and have a desktop experience is no innovation, either. Other, lesser-known mobile platform have done similar. Besides how many people are really going to do that?

Satya Nadella says that the killer app will be Cortana, a feature of Windows Phone for a while now. I looked forward to having Cortana on my Lumia, but having run it for a few months, I barely know it's there. The Microsoft demos aren't replicated in real life, from my experience. I've been trying Cortana on Windows 10 and it's no better there, either. Keep in mind I'm technically minded and really want to use Cortana. I know others with Cortana who don't even know that it exists.

This isn't a problem unique to Microsoft. Most people I know with iPhones and Android phones get little value from their personal assistants either. The effort required to figure out how they work and then put that into action is simply too much for the majority of people. If Cortana is going to be the killer app that makes a billion people want Windows 10, then it had better improve significantly. For example, when I ask a simple question like, "What is today's date?" I just want Cortana to tell me the answer and not open up a browser with Bing results in it. IBM has begun to deliver this type of question-and-answer experience through its Watson cognitive compute capability.

Then there's HoloLens. No one should doubt the cleverness of the technology, but where's the innovation? Oculus Rift has been around (if not released) for a long time, and there are other similar products. If one watches the latest demos from Microsoft where people are wandering around their home wearing HoloLens, how realistic is that? 3D TV failed because people didn't want to sit in front of their TV wearing the glasses. Google Glass failed because people didn't want a computer strapped to their (or anyone else's) face. I have no doubt that HoloLens could do some incredible things in industrial scenarios. But in the home? Unlikely.

Developers! Developers! Developers! (By the Way, We Mean iOS and Android)
What about the community most responsible for Microsoft's success? At first glance, the Universal Platform seems like a great idea. It was always weird that building Windows Phone apps was kind of like building Windows 8 Apps but not really. The Universal Platform solves that and it will certainly save a lot of time and code. But why has it taken Microsoft so long to do it? Many of us suggested this back when Windows 8 was first announced. This year's Build conference saw Microsoft extend the Universal Platform to allow iOS and Android apps to run on it. This also seems like a smart move. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. But what are the potential implications?

It's no surprise that many loyal Windows developers felt sold out by this move. Some have expressed concern for their careers. Now, all of those iOS and Android folks who care little for Microsoft technology can drop their applications onto Windows. Microsoft has basically said forget .NET, C#, Visual Basic and so on -- just write Objective-C or Java and bring your apps to Windows. More importantly, what's the experience of these apps going to be like?

An iOS app is designed to be intuitive to iOS users familiar with that OS. That experience is very different from what Microsoft created with Windows Phone and the horizontal scrolling panoramas. If 90 percent of the apps on my phone are ported iOS apps, then why not just buy an iPhone? Windows 10 runs the risk of being a dumping ground for ill-fitting apps from multiple versions of other platforms. Do Windows users really want a lot of ported iOS flatulence and flashlight apps?

This is premised on the idea that iOS and Android developers see a market in porting their apps. Which, from anecdotal evidence so far, they don't. And while some may port apps over, what about testing and ongoing support and updates? I get that Microsoft wants to reach out to a wider pool of developers (they even launched a new tool for them, Visual Studio Code), but it may have alienated parts of its ecosystem for a new crowd who just aren't interested. Let's not forget how Visual J++ failed to attract Java developers mainly because Java developers don't want much to do with Microsoft. The same could be said of many iOS and Android developers.

Windows Is Dead. Long Live Windows!
We now live in a multi-OS world, and Windows 10 will sell because people need Windows, both at home and especially at work. They need the applications that they use every day and that only run on Windows. They need the familiarity of the Windows desktop. They need the low prices that Windows machines can be sold for, especially to corporate accounts. And Windows 10 has been made more palatable for them: The Start menu is back. Boots to desktop. Charms have disappeared.

With Windows Phone and Windows 8 Microsoft clearly innovated, to the surprise of many and too far for others. It wasn't perfect out of the gate, but they solved real-world challenges in new and clever ways. Amazingly they even impacted the design world; just look at the amount of flat design now used. But instead of the massive leap that the company implies Windows 10 to be, it's a more comfortable upgrade to Windows 7 that feels like Microsoft has better things to do than OSes. In truth, that's what many customers want. It really is "the Windows you know, only better," and that's why Windows 10 will most likely be a success in the sense that people will not actively not want it like they did with Vista or 8. It's just a shame that there's nothing of Microsoft's recent innovation in Windows 10.

Yes, there are the Universal platform and HoloLens, but they need people to build apps for them. And frankly, building apps for Windows in this decade is something developers are just not doing in large numbers outside of the enterprise. Now that they can port over iOS and Android apps, there's even less reason for them to build specifically to the Microsoft platform.

The focus for Microsoft is on the cloud, and if it can survive the price wars and grow customers (which it seems to be doing), then it's a good strategy that so far is proving successful. Nadella's recent outreach and cooperation -- where old enemies become partners -- is both refreshing and sensible, as is embracing iOS and Android users through new native apps. Cloud is the new power in computing just as the desktop was before, so why worry about Windows? Microsoft has announced that Windows 10 will be the last version of Windows. I know what it means by that, but it's also a metaphor for the truth.