Microsoft doesn’t think Windows is important anymore

“The operating system is no longer the most important layer for us,” was the message from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella yesterday.

Microsoft had a big day for Surface, introducing new hardware for the holiday season and teasing dual-screen devices like the Surface Duo and Surface Neo that are coming next year. But it was Nadella’s interview with Wired that really stood out. “What is most important for us is the app model and the experience,” revealed Nadella, further cementing that Windows has slipped down the importance list at Microsoft. “How people are going to write apps for Duo and Neo will have a lot more to do with each other than just writing a Windows app or an Android app, because it’s going to be about the Microsoft Graph.”

He’s right, of course, and it’s something that Microsoft has been signaling since Nadella took over as CEO more than five years ago. Nadella reshuffled Microsoft’s Windows division last year, leading to the departure of former Windows chief Terry Myerson and the core development of Windows being moved to a cloud and AI team. I wrote “Microsoft is ready for a world beyond Windows,” last year, and many of the points are even more relevant today.

Surface Duo and Surface Neo
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Windows is still a significant part of Microsoft’s business, but it’s not the future of it. Nadella is signaling that by focusing on the Microsoft Graph, a collection of APIs that connects devices to Microsoft’s cloud services and acts as an important gateway into Windows, Office 365, and Azure. It looks like Microsoft is partnering with Google to connect this Graph deeper into Android.

Microsoft was vague on the details of its partnership with Google during its Surface event, but the company did announce a new Surface Duo phone running Android. It’s a significant shift, and a return to smartphones for Microsoft, just without Windows this time. Microsoft is now an Android phone maker, and the company’s chief product officer, Panos Panay, was happy to reveal why during an episode of The Vergecast this week. “Because there [are] hundreds of thousands of apps, and you want them,” explained Panay. “It’s pretty simple. Like, literally, you need the apps.”

Another smartphone running Windows would have flopped without these key apps, and Microsoft has now turned to Google to get access to the Play Store and perhaps a little more. Microsoft has hinted that it’s working directly with Google on dual-screen devices for Android, and some additional API work to improve the experience.

That could mean Microsoft is adopting Android in a way that it will contribute back to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), similar to how the company has adopted and is improving Chromium. If that’s the case, then it really looks like Microsoft’s future is built on Google’s code, but Panay doesn’t seem to think Windows isn’t important anymore.

Surface Duo running Android
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” says Panay in response to the possibility of Android being the future for Microsoft. “You want to give customers what they want in the form factor that they’re using. We’ve learned this — let’s put the right operating system on the wrong product or the other way around. But what’s the right operating system for the form factor? And in this case, on mobile devices, Android’s the obvious choice. But anything [bigger than] that, Windows is everything.”

Windows is still important for people using it right now, but Nadella knows it won’t be soon. Corporate customers still rely on Windows for legacy desktop apps, Microsoft Office, and much more, but elsewhere the majority of computing has shifted to mobile. Apps are increasingly becoming more cross-platform, and relying on web technologies instead of native operating system hooks. Microsoft followed this trend with its many Android and iOS apps, and by bringing Office to the iPad nearly five years ago.

Microsoft is now focused on ensuring things like Office and Microsoft Teams shine on every operating system. That does mean that developing and improving Windows is less important for the company, but improving Android and Chromium so that Microsoft’s apps and services can run better is an obvious move. Panay calls this “creating APIs that create magical experiences across dual screens,” and if Microsoft is successful, then it could mean we’ll see far greater integration between Windows and Android than exists today.

Satya Nadella at Microsoft’s Surface event
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

How Microsoft achieves that with Google remains to be seen, but Nadella is describing it as “an app model that spans experiences across devices.” Microsoft revealed the bare minimum of details at its Surface event, promising more software information in the coming months and at the company’s Build developer conference. If Google is willing to open up Android to more Windows integration, then you can guarantee it will want more access to Windows as part of the deal.

Microsoft has already embraced Android as the mobile equivalent of Windows, so if this partnership is done correctly then maybe we’ll see better Google apps on Windows, or Microsoft allowing Windows 10 users to search Google from Windows search. Microsoft has tried to force its defaults in Windows for many years, and Google went out of its way to thwart Windows Phone and Microsoft’s Edge browser work. It’s about time both Google and Microsoft offered the best solution for its mutual customers.

Nadella’s not-so-subtle hints about the future of Windows won’t mean much right now, but it’s clear Microsoft will increasingly partner and make sure its apps, services, and even hardware work best no matter what operating system runs underneath. Windows is by no means dead, but it’s gradually slipping down Microsoft’s list of priorities.

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Comments

I think Microsoft’s strategy here is very smart. Whether it all works as calculated, only time will tell but at least they do finally have some key things figured out.

If you’re creating a smartphone like device that’s intended to replace your main phone then it absolutely has to run Android if you want to give it any chance to be even remotely successful. But like Panos said, Android hasn’t proven to be great on larger form factors like tablets and Samsung is the only one with their Tab S line that has seen any sort of success with a heavily altered/custom UI for that larger device.

One could argue that Microsoft’s chances of the Neo being a success with Windows 10X is about the same as them gambling running Android on that device with their own custom interface to make best use of the larger screens but for me Windows 10X is the bigger gamble.

They haven’t had much success in the past luring developers to build apps and services for a new and unique platform and that’s what 10X seems to be. We don’t know much about it yet but if it shares a decent amount with its big brother Windows 10 then it may be relatively easy to create apps for but that’s yet to be seen. As of right now, the Duo is the closest thing they have to a homerun device and if released this year, I think will sell much better than the Fold for sure.

Personally speaking, and I’m sure I’m the minority, Neo I could see me buying (and most likely will if the price is right). Duo I wish ran 10X as well (with telephony and what not still part of the deal). Prior to Windows 10 Mobile being shelved and when there were murmurs of a dual screen Surface phone (Andromeda), I was very interested in that possibility. So Android. Last Android device was a S7 Edge and realistically, it probably will be the last Android device I own. I’ve tried to downsize my relationship with Google as much as possible. The last two things being gmail (which I’m in the process of looking at pay providers, ProtonMail seems to be highly regarded) and Google Analytics/Tag Manager/etc. such as from this site (can’t escape these I guess).

But for those who are game to stick with Android? This looks like an absolutely great device. Personally, I like the implementation here better than the Galaxy Fold (but to be fair, Galaxy Fold will be out a year earlier). If it were running Windows, I’d be all over it, but I get the thought process they went with here and as much as it doesn’t work for me, I think it is the right decision to make.

I agree, I personally would be more interested in a win10x powered version of the duo than android (if they could get the app situation addressed). win10x will be far more tailored to those devices than android could be and I think that will really matter long term with these kind of devices.

What I suspect will happen is they are releasing the android version now because it gets them in the door with a phone sized devices and get people used to how it works but as developers create software for both devices the store will fill out and maybe a gen or two from now they will have enough of the major apps to make both a win10x and android version of the duo and slowly migrate everything to win10x. But that does assume the software arrives for it, I think it will this time by bringing the android side in to start and having a migration path to win10x from that.

I think it is more likely that they will fork Android. Then all the well-received apps MS has written for Android would be instantly available and other apps would not even need to be recompiled to be added to an MS store. As a user this is what I’m hoping for because, like whlr, I try to avoid using Google services wherever possible. This would provide MS with a boatload of potential apps that would simply need to be submitted as-is. MS could then curate their store as the safest and best of what’s available in the Google Play store without all of the trash apps and could use that as a selling point similar to the pitch Apple is currently making.

You make it sound easy but wouldn’t Microsoft need to create the equivalent of Google Play Services?

I see this more as a way for Google to offload Android onto Microsoft. Microsoft gets its mobile foothold and Google gets to transition to Fuchsia. This is a win/win. Google solves its fragmentation problem with Fuchsia and Microsoft gets into mobile. My guess is that Microsoft has a solution in mind for the Android fragmentation problem. Their work to integrate Linux into Windows could be the basis for further integration with Android. I don’t know if Microsoft has thought this through completely, as Tom and Panos discussed in the podcast, but something is there that Microsoft does not want to talk about just yet.

I think the Duo is Andromeda. They even said it’s been something they’ve been working on for 3 years, and the Andromeda renders look almost exactly like the Duo except with a single, flexible screen. In fact, the name Andromeda even makes a little more sense because it sounds like a play on Android.

If your looking at E-mail, i highly recommend the Proton Email service, which you can actually use for free, though you will be limited to 500 mb of online space and 3 folders to organize your emails into.

Yeah, was looking at paid because I figure it is time to graduate to a custom domain so that if I ever feel the need to leave again, I can do so without the typical "My primary email is now x@y.tld" emails.

Looked at spinning up a Linux VM to do it, but with all of the maintenance headache plus requiring timing to seem okay (so messages aren’t spam by default) or whatever, I figure easier just to pay them.

Windows 10X will fill the gap for devices that can compete with Apple like on the iPad Pro, you are right that this is a bigger gamble. Essentially Apple is working with Adobe to make their Lightroom software on iPad Pro even better than on a MacBook and that is just an example. if Windows 10X wants to be a good choice for artists and designers it needs to support the big guys like Adobe and I haven’t seen any software being developed in 2019 for Windows Universal Apps from Adobe in Microsoft Store, this is one advantage iOS has over Windows 10X, so I think in November when Surface Pro X launches it needs to be reviewed compared with the iPad Pro and decide if it will be a success, or a failure like Windows RT Surface device was about 7 years ago.

Microsoft could just buy Adobe. It’s been rumored for years now.

I don’t think that’s going to happen, and Adobe is a whole lot better off as a company independent from both Apple’s & Microsoft’s ownership.

Adobe is very niche if you’re looking at the corporate world where MS is making their money. Also this article is wrong on the irrelevance of Windows. If that were the fact they would give it away for free which is far from reality. As a former MS senior licensing employee I can tell you that the only thing MS is after is subscriptions and thus turning every software they offer into a service.
Concerning Windows, you have to buy the device with a Windows license just to be even eligible to license Windows Enterprise Upgrade as a Volume customer.
And on Adobe, we currently have around 20k Windows devices at the place I work and our total Adobe license count us 1400, 1380 of those being Acrobat and 20 being Creative Cloud. As long as your business is not into creativity (and most businesses are not) this will apply to it as well.
Surface devices are very popular and we own several hundred of them (well over 1500 in total) and yet there support is completely lacking. On site service is not available, devices can not be repaired and have to be completely swapped. I would think if the replaceable SSD being more of something they are going to offer to enterprises as the downtime of a device can be hugely cut when you can just swap the SSD into a new drive instead if going into full setup mode.

I would ultimately still like an android alternative in the phone space but this is definitely the right approach for Microsoft.

The next step for me would be to release the universal windows apps platform on Android, MacOS, Linux and cross compile for iOS making it truly universal. For all the cross platform work going into new .NET versions and the Xamarin purchase it looks like this is where they are heading. If they can get developers on board with a universal development platform it really makes the OS near irrelevant reducing the Apple/Google stronghold in smartphones. It does work the other way too though reducing the need for windows in businesses but that looks to be inevitable anyway in a post OS world.

It’s about time both Google and Microsoft offered the best solution for its mutual customers.

I would love to see this come to pass.

Can we be honest though here? I mean the linked articles in this article regarding MS being anti-competitive were them trying to encourage their products. Google was essentially able to stop MS from being able to compete in mobile by refusing to make youTube, gMail, or Google Maps apps AND going so far as breaking their own API to prevent Microsoft’s YouTube app from working. I really think that their is a big difference between the two when it comes to who is willing to compete.

I would really like to see this happen, but I’m not deluded as to its likelihood anytime soon.

Microsoft’s history of anti-competitive behaviour goes back to before Google was even a research project at Standford. MS learned hard lessons I think, and are better for it. Google has still to learn those lessons it seems. It’s a far different political climate now than when MS was slapped around, but I hope the effect is the same.

It would be an interesting move to preempt anti-trust on Google’s part to hand over Android to Microsoft and replace it with Fuchsia…

That would be interesting indeed.

history is on your side for sure, but I think the variable that is different here is that Microsoft has given in to adopting Android. And not just from this mobile handset, but the deep linking with Windows (the phone companion feature). Short of Microsoft circumventing Google’s advertisements in Microsoft’s apps (believe that was the reason given for them blocking Microsoft’s access to their YouTube API), I think they’ll be incredibly approving of Microsoft leveraging (and by extension, elevating) Google’s systems.

I used to get angry everyday being stuck with Android phones because of the malice of developers hating WP out of the market. I became angrier as the scope of Google’s data theft and selling — including to LEOs has slowly eeked out to the public. Android is a slower OS and always has been not because of silicon, but as found back in the ICS / JB / KK days — the wakelocks for location tracking and advertising engines stealing CPU cycles. Hence low spec WP models like the 520/35 ran so much smoother than Android midrange phones of the day.

The WP UI was actually something functional and refreshing over the desktop and icon paradigm. Forget faffing over Skeumorphism versus Material Design — both shitty skins derived from mouse and keyboard interfaces and poorly taking advantage of touch interfaces and new interface dimensions and aspect ratios.

I’m really on board with all the posts about MS loading it with W10X and containerizing Android (in a fucking jail cell against leaking information) — but alas that would require ending Google’s Anti-trust with Google Play Services / Store.

If you can’t beat them..you might as well join them.

They should have done Android phone a long time ago…MS could have been the Samsung of Android had they gone Android from the start. Lesson learned I guess.

Highly doubt that Microsoft ever saw themselves ever being in this predicament 5+ years ago.

"They never saw themselves in this predicament…" Uhh yes they did. Wtf do you think they retired Windows phone? There is 20 years of development and a huge software library left behind that is no longer accessible with Windows Mobile and they just abandon their mobile plans…why?

Well they dropped Windows Mobile as a bet on Windows Phone. They likely didn’t expect Windows Phone to bomb as hard as it did, never mind the money lost in acquiring Nokia.

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