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Microsoft is doing a better job developing for the web than for Windows

Microsoft is doing a better job developing for the web than for Windows


Plus: Adobe is coming to the iPad in a big way

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Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verg

Monday brought a pile of software news from Adobe and Microsoft, borne of two events that have historically been snoozers. This year, though, we should have seen it coming. I want to explain why Microsoft’s Ignite conference, which is ostensibly more about IT and consumers, turned out to be a much bigger deal than usual.

First, though: we should have seen it coming from Adobe too. It has been working up towards releasing Photoshop for the iPad Pro for some time — and it always has a few fun apps and announcements to go alongside it. Dami Lee is on the ground at Adobe’s event and has been filing many great reports, hands-ons, and interviews.

Both events reveal a common theme: supporting multiple computing platforms. Both Adobe and Microsoft have to go where their customers are instead of trying to keep them within their historic ecosystems. That’s a weird lens through which to view Adobe, maybe, but I think it fits: it needs to have touchpoints on every possible device you might use, to keep the flow of customers who are ready to move from amateurs to pro.

With Microsoft, the theme of making apps for multiple platforms is even more pronounced. Just yesterday, it announced major updates to apps for Android, macOS, iOS, and the web. The biggest Windows-centric announcement actually turned out to be a retrenchment: the company has to keep supporting the legacy version of OneNote longer than planned.

But on those other platforms — those competing platforms — Microsoft is moving full steam ahead. It’s easy to pooh-pooh some of these updates: of course Microsoft needs to make Office on Android good, because it has chosen Android as its own mobile OS for the future. Of course it needs to make Outlook on the Mac good, because otherwise it would lose Mac users entirely to GSuite.

In both cases, though, I don’t know that we would have seen this much care and attention granted to apps on platforms not named Windows under the Ballmer era. It certainly wouldn’t have been a sure thing. Satya Nadella started out his tenure by launching Office for iPad at his very first public event as CEO. The software was obviously ready ahead of time, but choosing it as his first announcement was a big signal to the outside world and to Microsoft’s own employees: don’t assume Windows will stick around forever.

Tom Warren has been writing about how Microsoft is no longer focused on Windows for a very long time now and I’ve joined the fray a few times myself. It doesn’t count as any great insight anymore. But what is important to note is just how strong Microsoft’s efforts on iOS, Mac, and the web have been over the past few years. It’s really remarkable.

Microsoft really is focused on the web, almost like it wants to make sure Google doesn’t dominate it

In fact, let’s dwell on the web for a moment. The company made the monumental decision to bail on its own browser engine and switch to Chromium, technology mostly developed by Google. It’s shipping the release candidate for the new Edge browser and releasing the final version in January. And Edge is going to be available — again — on multiple platforms, not just Windows.

There’s another web story that’s a little more technical but still important to keep an eye on — the “Fluid Framework” Microsoft is developing. The idea is that instead of sharing .doc files to each other nonstop, there will be a more “fluid” set of data in the cloud that you can share, collaboratively edit, and mix and match together.

I strongly suspect some of what Microsoft is touting with Fluid Framework is hand-wavy foofaraw. But the core of it is that Microsoft is investing in its web-based Office software instead of trying to force users back into the classic app suite.

I’m not suggesting that Microsoft is about to abandon native Office apps and move everybody to the web (though if you wanted to point the end of UWP Office apps as a harbinger, I wouldn’t stop you). But there’s an alternate universe where Google wasn’t such a dope when it came to enterprise cloud services and was competing more directly with Azure. Google’s greatest strength in cloud services may well be GSuite — and Microsoft’s moves ensure it is ready to head Google off at the pass if it ever gets its act together.

Set aside the details, though: the point is that Microsoft is savvily surveying the platform landscape and making strategic investments to make sure it’s ready when the next shift comes.

If only Microsoft was so savvy when it comes to its own platform: Windows 10.

Last night I published my review of the Microsoft Surface Pro X. I am writing on it right now and it’s been great for this purpose. Unfortunately, knowing whether or not it will be great for your purposes is more of a crapshoot: you have to do a ton of research to know if the apps you need will work well on this computer (or at all!).

The Surface Pro X has turned out to be a disappointment because Microsoft hasn’t been able to do what Microsoft seems to never be able to do: get developers to make their apps work with new platform initiatives. Microsoft overcame the hard problem of making Windows 10 run well on an ARM chip only to whiff on the even harder problem of having apps to support one of its new platforms.

It all bodes ill for another new flavor of Windows coming next year, Windows 10X.

We have, of course, seen this script before: with Windows RT, with Windows Phone, and with UWP apps. It’s possible that this time will be different, but I’m not especially hopeful. Microsoft’s own Edge browser — the one that is almost ready for official release — runs in emulation mode on the Surface Pro X. As does Microsoft Office.

Microsoft hasn’t ever successfully convinced developers to move beyond classic x86 apps

By the way: I love the web and web apps! I think it’s great that Microsoft is focused on making both better and I hope it continues to focus on it. A world where Windows essentially turns into a more capable kind of Chrome OS, where native apps are mostly for power users because the core platform runs web apps so well sounds pretty good to me. It also sounds like a long way off, if that’s even where Microsoft is heading.

But you can’t ignore the fact that Adobe went on stage at the announcement of the Surface Pro X to express its support and announce that Fresco was coming. As of this writing, it’s not compatible. Neither are many other Adobe apps — and the ones that are are dog slow.

Adobe can only do so much, so fast. It has to prioritize and push development to where the action is. Adobe Photoshop for the iPad Pro was released yesterday.

Like Adobe, Microsoft has to set priorities. I’d like to believe that getting more apps compiled and optimized for the ARM architecture is as important to the company as ensuring Office works well on the cloud. If lots of ARM apps came to Windows, it could allow lots of companies to make new devices directly competitive with the iPad Pro. Windows on ARM could revitalize the Windows ecosystem in a lot of exciting ways.

After finishing the review of the Surface Pro X, I put in an order for the Intel-based Surface Pro 7.

Adobe news

Adobe Max 2019: all the top announcements

Adobe’s Photoshop for the iPad is finally here, with more features to come

Describing this version of Photoshop has always been a challenge. As Dami Lee points out, calling it “real” makes people assume they get literally every feature from the desktop version. But it is real, in the sense that it is not limited in the way most of Adobe’s iOS apps have been to date.

”This is the beginning,” writes Photoshop product manager Pam Clark. “The first version of Photoshop on iPad is focused on ... common tasks and workflows that we know will be useful for most Photoshop users.” Adobe is careful to note that more features will be added over time, as the company’s labeling of the app as “real Photoshop” led to some early reports of beta testers ending up disappointed that the software wasn’t what they had hoped for. 

+ This looks like a ton of fun: Adobe is launching a free AI-powered Photoshop Camera app

Adobe Illustrator for iPad: all the biggest features: After Photoshop, this is the big one a lot of people have been waiting for. 

Adobe and Twitter are designing a system for permanently attaching artists’ names to pictures

Today in “ideas that sound great at first but then the implementation details get really kind of worrying:”

Tags wouldn’t be very useful if they could be easily altered or removed, but if the system preserves security by tightly controlling how people can interact with the image, it could have the same downsides as other digital rights management or DRM systems. 

Microsoft news

Microsoft Ignite 2019: all the news from Microsoft’s enterprise IT event

Microsoft teams up with Warner Bros. to store Superman on new glass storage

Literally everything your data is stored on currently will be unreadable in a hundred years. I don’t think we should be archiving everything in glass, but far too much of our collective human knowledge is dangerously ephemeral right now. 

Microsoft brings OneNote 2016 desktop app back to life with new dark mode

I am sure that lots of fans of this version of OneNote are very happy, but golly it’s weird to see it hanging on this long. I’m most surprised to see it pick up new features — wouldn’t you want to put every single resource into getting the more modern version up to feature parity? This seems like an admission that it’s going to be a much longer-term project than it really should be. 

Microsoft’s new Office app for iOS and Android combines Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

One app smaller than three apps == good. But if you only wanted one of those three apps, one app bigger than three apps == not so good. I suppose as long as Microsoft keeps this app fast and well-maintained, it’s worth the tradeoff.

Microsoft: Slack doesn’t have the ‘breadth and depth’ to reinvent work

Tom Warren is exactly right when he points out that Slack is good for small and medium sized business, while Teams is good for big ones. Teams is tightly tied to Office, which is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is obvious, but the curse I think is that it’s harder (at least conceptually) for companies to just pick up Teams as a singular service if they’re interested.

And I know everybody wants more features all the time, but I hope that when Microsoft is thinking through the integrations mentions below it’s being very careful. These plans smell ...bloaty.

”It is so easy for people to look at the two, Slack and Teams, and compare them,” explains Spataro. “From my perspective, they’re just totally different approaches to the problem of being more productive.” That problem is pushing Microsoft toward making Teams the hub for collaboration, and it also means the company is leaning on what it does best to integrate Outlook, Office, Yammer, tasks, and much more into Teams.

Microsoft Teams is getting Outlook integration, tasks support, and more

I know I just raised the flag about bloat, but honestly as a Slack / GSuite user, these integrations have me jealous. 

Outlook for Mac gets a new design and big performance improvements

Microsoft’s Edge Chromium browser will launch on January 15th with a new logo

The big question I have is whether Windows 10 is using Chromium rendering across the entire OS or just inside this browser. The other big question I have is whether and when there will be a 64 bit native ARM version -- aka the version that will make this much better on the Surface Pro X.

Microsoft previews the future of Office documents with Fluid Framework for the web

Pro: This is much more modern and flexible and useful than emailing .doc attachments to each other.

Con: What are the chances non-Microsoft apps will have a ghost of a chance of reading these frameworks (I was almost going to call them file formats, but the whole point is that this is a break from the whole concept of file formats).

TLDR: Unless these Fluid Frameworks are agnostic to which apps are trying to access them, they’re cool but not part of the web.

“It takes the concept of what used to be a document and blows it up and replaces it with a big cloud address in the sky,” reveals Spataro. “It allows you, at that cloud address, to place different content components so everything from written word to tables, to visualizations like graphs all together in one place.” Fluid will then allow you to access all of this content in real time, so it’s fully collaborative and shareable with others.