Devices and services? Microsoft needs to focus on apps

By Kip Kniskern | Posted January 8, 2013 38 comments

windows-8-storeLate last year, Microsoft announced that it is changing its focus, moving away from software and toward “devices and services”.  We’re not really sure exactly what that means, yet, although the devices part is fairly obvious (although it may be less obvious that it’s a good strategy): continue to expand the Microsoft Surface line, integrate Xbox and the upcoming Durango into a Windows driven ecosystem, and keep pushing Windows Phone.

Services are a bit harder to find a clear path for.  Certainly Microsoft is betting big on Bing, and SkyDrive, and Office 365, and Azure, and those may be the four big pillars of services.  Xbox Music could be another pillar, although it not only isn’t a competitor to iTunes at the moment, it’s even a much worse service currently than what we had with Zune.

In fact, most of the apps published by Microsoft for Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 are underpowered, poorly conceived, and in a word, abysmal.  Mail, Messaging, Photo Gallery, etc., etc., are laughably poor counterparts to what we had with Windows Live Essentials.  And here we are, nearly 6 months after we first caught sight of these apps, with little or no improvement, and they’re still mostly unusable except as proof of concept demos.

Last week, Skype updated its Windows Phone app, but even though Skype is a Division of Microsoft, it couldn’t even support one of the baseline features of Windows Phone, and had to drop support for the People Hub.

And those are just the apps for Microsoft services.  It doesn’t get much better for supporting other services, something that is imperative in a post monopolistic world.  There’s a Facebook app for Windows Phone, but none for Windows 8, and we’ve been documenting the very public issues Microsoft has in supporting Google services.  Windows Phone’s lack of top tier apps is well documented, and some blame those services for not releasing Windows Phone apps.  Well, with barely 3 percent marketshare, it isn’t up to a 3rd party service to prop up Windows Phone, it’s up to Microsoft.

The old Microsoft, the one that focused on software and platforms and tools, could get away with tossing out a mishmash of “Hello World” apps, with high hopes that third parties would complete the job, and in the old days, they did.  In this new Microsoft, however, where Windows Phone lags far behind the market leaders, and Windows 8 is getting off to a slow start, Microsoft needs to do more.

It’s up to Microsoft, not Google or other popular services, to provide apps that work with third party services, and it’s certainly up to Microsoft to provide top quality and industry leading apps for its own services, and sooner rather than later.

The Sinofsky regime decimated the Windows Live organization, shipping Hotmail off to Office, silo-ing SkyDrive into its own little org, and burying the rest of what used to be Windows Live deep within Windows.  Now, with Sinofsky gone, Microsoft needs to put app development for Windows Phone and Windows 8 front and center, collaborating across divisions, and across the 3rd party landscapes.  There can’t be any more excuses.  Windows Phone needs to work with every service that any other phone works with, and Windows 8 needs to not only do everything that an iPad does, but do it better, and do more besides.

Posted January 8th, 2013 at 10:48 am
  • http://twitter.com/surilamin surilamin

    Yep agreed. I think we’re in a period of growing pains, hopefully this gets resolved very soon.

  • http://twitter.com/surilamin surilamin

    Yep agreed. I think we’re in a period of growing pains, hopefully this gets resolved very soon.

  • uberlaff

    I could not agree with this more! I’ve been arguing for the creation of Microsoft App Studios to start creating industry leading apps and experiences.

    Apple understands this and has done an excellent job with it’s iLife suite for iOS. They are pushing their platform and they have the healthiest ecosystem and some of the most creative apps. Microsoft should start supporting their own platform this way. Create industry leading apps and experiences for their platforms (and on other platforms for good karma) and give their users something to brag about.

    The Metro platforms are great but they are not building the ecosystem to support them.

  • uberlaff

    I could not agree with this more! I’ve been arguing for the creation of Microsoft App Studios to start creating industry leading apps and experiences.

    Apple understands this and has done an excellent job with it’s iLife suite for iOS. They are pushing their platform and they have the healthiest ecosystem and some of the most creative apps. Microsoft should start supporting their own platform this way. Create industry leading apps and experiences for their platforms (and on other platforms for good karma) and give their users something to brag about.

    The Metro platforms are great but they are not building the ecosystem to support them.

  • tN0

    Absolutely! Exclusive apps, games and services should be the reason why people want to use Windows devices! For the PC this was Office for a long time and games in general, on the Xbox they had exclusive titles like Halo to get people on the system. But Windows Phone and Windows 8/RT doesn’t have one single software or service that isn’t available in one form on other platforms.

    Even some core technology is missing. Where is speech on Microsoft’s tablet platform? If you ask Bill Gates about tablets, he is always talking about pen and speech! Always. Both are not supported on the Surface RT. It is like a joke.

    And what about the Windows Store? The design and functionality of this core app for their most important product is depressing! I’m not talking about the number of apps (they are quite good actually) but the presentation and the lack of enthusiasm. One single page with some rectangle on white background. And lists. A lot of boring lists of apps. It is like they don’t want you to discover something new. The web version of the Store even has the old Microsoft logo. Seriously depressing.

  • NicolaMantovani

    this is the reason why sinofsky got the boot, right?

  • tN0

    Absolutely! Exclusive apps, games and services should be the reason why people want to use Windows devices! For the PC this was Office for a long time and games in general, on the Xbox they had exclusive titles like Halo to get people on the system. But Windows Phone and Windows 8/RT doesn’t have one single software or service that isn’t available in one form on other platforms.

    Even some core technology is missing. Where is speech on Microsoft’s tablet platform? If you ask Bill Gates about tablets, he is always talking about pen and speech! Always. Both are not supported on the Surface RT. It is like a joke.

    And what about the Windows Store? The design and functionality of this core app for their most important product is depressing! I’m not talking about the number of apps (they are quite good actually) but the presentation and the lack of enthusiasm. One single page with some rectangle on white background. And lists. A lot of boring lists of apps. It is like they don’t want you to discover something new. The web version of the Store even has the old Microsoft logo. Seriously depressing.

  • NicolaMantovani

    this is the reason why sinofsky got the boot, right?

  • Asgard

    “Services are a bit harder to find a clear path for. Certainly Microsoft is betting big on Bing, and SkyDrive, and Office 365, and Azure, and those may be the four big pillars of services.”
    The “services” MS is talking about are things like Lync Online, Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office 365 and so on. Meaning enterprise infrastructure hosted by MS (on Azure). It will be a huge thing especially for small and mid-sized companies. It will also be a big thing for enterprises in the future who are currently (because of outsourcing IT) struggling on updating infra and still running XP stuff. Online services will automatically always be up to date.

  • Asgard

    “Services are a bit harder to find a clear path for. Certainly Microsoft is betting big on Bing, and SkyDrive, and Office 365, and Azure, and those may be the four big pillars of services.”
    The “services” MS is talking about are things like Lync Online, Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office 365 and so on. Meaning enterprise infrastructure hosted by MS (on Azure). It will be a huge thing especially for small and mid-sized companies. It will also be a big thing for enterprises in the future who are currently (because of outsourcing IT) struggling on updating infra and still running XP stuff. Online services will automatically always be up to date.

  • Tom

    I think you underestimate the challenge here. If I’m right Microsoft’s internal developers aren’t very motivated right now.

    I mean, realistically Windows 8 is dead in its current form. Everyone’s expecting a retooling in the next revision so almost no one is focused on the current version anymore. That leaves Microsoft’s internal app developers in a rut. Even if they make the greatest app in the world it’s not going to get much media attention.

    The same is true of Windows Phone 8. It just doesn’t seem to be getting traction and it has to be hard for developers of a Microsoft service to be forced to work on an app for WP8 when iOS and Android are clearly where the heat is right now.

    Honestly I think Microsoft is going to have to abandon
    Windows Phone 8 at this point and the sooner they do the better. Turn the Microsoft development teams loose on iOS and Android and let them make Microsoft services the best on those platforms.

    As crazy as that sounds to some it doesn’t seem like such a
    hard task to me. Look at Microsoft Azure. They’re on fire right now.

    Microsoft’s one advantage is their business model is built
    around listening to customers and giving customers what they want. That’s not true of Apple and Google. If Microsoft really backed their services and went all-in with the services I think they could get a significant amount of the iOS and Android market.

    • efjay

      And what if someone doesn’t want to use android or IOS, why should they be forced to? There should be choice in mobile platforms and Windows Phone, no matter how small the marketshare should be a choice for consumers to consider. Being forced to choose between just 2 mobile platforms doesn’t seem like a consumer friendly situation.

      • Tom

        You’re mixing up two different perspectives: That of the customer (yours) and that of the Vendor (Microsoft). From your perspective it’s best to have as many options as possible. There’s no question of that. Especially if you don’t like iOS and Android.

        But Microsoft has to be realistic. Unless they put a lot of effort into Windows Phone apps the platform isn’t going to sell. But if they put that effort in they can’t compete on iOS or Android (as we’ve seen).

        So the question is can Windows Phone ever gain significant market share. Because Microsoft can’t afford to put all their effort into Windows Phone 8 if it can’t. Right now an 18 year old can go through life having never used a Microsoft product (assuming they’re a PS3 person). That’s very bad for Microsoft’s brand. So if people are going to buy iOS or Anrdoid no matter how good WP8 is then Microsoft has to let it Windows Phone go and focus where the people are.

    • Chris_Kez

      Interesting idea. So would the goal be for Microsoft to kind of mimic Google’s approach with iOS and port the entire ecosystem onto a competitive mobile OS? That’s what Google has done with gmail, g+, google maps, etc., right? So a consumer could be “all in” on Windows and associated MS services but be able to use an iOS or Android device without too many pain points.

      That makes some sense, but let me offer two counter-points, one consumer-focused and one vendor-focused (though they are inter-related).

      From a consumer standpoint, MS devotees would always have a somewhat constrained experience compared to what they’d get on a fully-developed Windows device (right now that is limited to pc’s, but eventually WRT and WP could get there). Look at Google- its iOS apps are amazing, and in some instances the experience surpasses what you’d get from a comparable native Apple service (think maps and mail; and while g+ itself is under-developed I think the app surpasses the Facebook app on iOS). That said, ask serious Google users who have tried both iOS and Android which platform offers them a better, integrated experience of Google services.

      From the vendor standpoint, I’ll again use Google as an example. When Android was in its infancy a lot of folks wondered why Google would bother when they could just focus resources on developing a great iOS experience. The answer goes back to the issue of control. They didn’t want to have another company dictating what could or could not be done. They wanted to have the ability to link together all of their services in a very deep way, in a way that Apple would not allow. Can you get by very nicely using nothing but Google apps on iOS? Sure, but even the great maps app and a great chrome app simply lack deep OS-level integration. This not only impacts the user experience, but it means Google is not hooked into every single thing that happens on the device. Not in the way that Apple is. And that means Apple is uniquely positioned to maximize the information they get from and about users- information that they ultimately convert to income through better services, devices and advertising.

      I don’t think the Google/Android story is a perfect analogy because Android had an advantage that WP8 will not enjoy- it came along at a time when carriers and manufacturers were looking for an alternative to Apple. Manufacturers obviously needed to back something and at the time there was not another great option- Android was highly customizable/skinnable, backed by a darling of the tech world, and FREE. Carriers needed something new and exciting and more profitable for them than Apple. Unfortunately for MS those manufacturer and carrier partners don’t necessarily need a third option- they’re all doing quite well with the Big Two. Well, I suppose Nokia, RIM and some 2nd or 3rd tier Android manufacturers like LG or HTC might be interested.

      All that said, I think MS still needs to (and will in fact) continue down the current path. They simply can’t put their mobile future (and some might argue that mobile simply IS the future) in the hands of Apple and Google. They need to own the user experience wherever it happens (the “three screens”, if you will). They have the desktop market for the near future; they have a strong x Box platform for the TV/media market; now they need to strengthen RT and WP then tie this all together.

      • Tom

        For the record I’m not sure I disagree with your counter points. From a strategic perspective I think you’re right.
        Where I differ is I just don’t think Microsoft can win at this point.

        As you said, no one is really looking for a third option.

        Microsoft enthusiasts inside the company and out still seem to have this vision of a company that will inevitably succeed by its third try. I’m not sure that’s the case here and if they can’t gain traction in the phone market they’ll have poured a lot of resources down a drain. Resources they need elsewhere.

        Which is essentially my point. They need to either give up or decide at what point they will give up. Otherwise they’ll kill the company while attempting to save it.

  • Tom

    I think you underestimate the challenge here. If I’m right Microsoft’s internal developers aren’t very motivated right now.

    I mean, realistically Windows 8 is dead in its current form. Everyone’s expecting a retooling in the next revision so almost no one is focused on the current version anymore. That leaves Microsoft’s internal app developers in a rut. Even if they make the greatest app in the world it’s not going to get much media attention.

    The same is true of Windows Phone 8. It just doesn’t seem to be getting traction and it has to be hard for developers of a Microsoft service to be forced to work on an app for WP8 when iOS and Android are clearly where the heat is right now.

    Honestly I think Microsoft is going to have to abandon
    Windows Phone 8 at this point and the sooner they do the better. Turn the Microsoft development teams loose on iOS and Android and let them make Microsoft services the best on those platforms.

    As crazy as that sounds to some it doesn’t seem like such a
    hard task to me. Look at Microsoft Azure. They’re on fire right now.

    Microsoft’s one advantage is their business model is built
    around listening to customers and giving customers what they want. That’s not true of Apple and Google. If Microsoft really backed their services and went all-in with the services I think they could get a significant amount of the iOS and Android market.

    • http://twitter.com/efjay01 Ef Jay

      And what if someone doesn’t want to use android or IOS, why should they be forced to? There should be choice in mobile platforms and Windows Phone, no matter how small the marketshare should be a choice for consumers to consider. Being forced to choose between just 2 mobile platforms doesn’t seem like a consumer friendly situation.

      • Tom

        You’re mixing up two different perspectives: That of the customer (yours) and that of the Vendor (Microsoft). From your perspective it’s best to have as many options as possible. There’s no question of that. Especially if you don’t like iOS and Android.

        But Microsoft has to be realistic. Unless they put a lot of effort into Windows Phone apps the platform isn’t going to sell. But if they put that effort in they can’t compete on iOS or Android (as we’ve seen).

        So the question is can Windows Phone ever gain significant market share. Because Microsoft can’t afford to put all their effort into Windows Phone 8 if it can’t. Right now an 18 year old can go through life having never used a Microsoft product (assuming they’re a PS3 person). That’s very bad for Microsoft’s brand. So if people are going to buy iOS or Anrdoid no matter how good WP8 is then Microsoft has to let it Windows Phone go and focus where the people are.

    • coachkecz

      Interesting idea. So would the goal be for Microsoft to kind of mimic Google’s approach with iOS and port the entire ecosystem onto a competitive mobile OS? That’s what Google has done with gmail, g+, google maps, etc., right? So a consumer could be “all in” on Windows and associated MS services but be able to use an iOS or Android device without too many pain points.

      That makes some sense, but let me offer two counter-points, one consumer-focused and one vendor-focused (though they are inter-related).

      From a consumer standpoint, MS devotees would always have a somewhat constrained experience compared to what they’d get on a fully-developed Windows device (right now that is limited to pc’s, but eventually WRT and WP could get there). Look at Google- its iOS apps are amazing, and in some instances the experience surpasses what you’d get from a comparable native Apple service (think maps and mail; and while g+ itself is under-developed I think the app surpasses the Facebook app on iOS). That said, ask serious Google users who have tried both iOS and Android which platform offers them a better, integrated experience of Google services.

      From the vendor standpoint, I’ll again use Google as an example. When Android was in its infancy a lot of folks wondered why Google would bother when they could just focus resources on developing a great iOS experience. The answer goes back to the issue of control. They didn’t want to have another company dictating what could or could not be done. They wanted to have the ability to link together all of their services in a very deep way, in a way that Apple would not allow. Can you get by very nicely using nothing but Google apps on iOS? Sure, but even the great maps app and a great chrome app simply lack deep OS-level integration. This not only impacts the user experience, but it means Google is not hooked into every single thing that happens on the device. Not in the way that Apple is. And that means Apple is uniquely positioned to maximize the information they get from and about users- information that they ultimately convert to income through better services, devices and advertising.

      I don’t think the Google/Android story is a perfect analogy because Android had an advantage that WP8 will not enjoy- it came along at a time when carriers and manufacturers were looking for an alternative to Apple. Manufacturers obviously needed to back something and at the time there was not another great option- Android was highly customizable/skinnable, backed by a darling of the tech world, and FREE. Carriers needed something new and exciting and more profitable for them than Apple. Unfortunately for MS those manufacturer and carrier partners don’t necessarily need a third option- they’re all doing quite well with the Big Two. Well, I suppose Nokia, RIM and some 2nd or 3rd tier Android manufacturers like LG or HTC might be interested.

      All that said, I think MS still needs to (and will in fact) continue down the current path. They simply can’t put their mobile future (and some might argue that mobile simply IS the future) in the hands of Apple and Google. They need to own the user experience wherever it happens (the “three screens”, if you will). They have the desktop market for the near future; they have a strong x Box platform for the TV/media market; now they need to strengthen RT and WP then tie this all together.

      • Tom

        For the record I’m not sure I disagree with your counter points. From a strategic perspective I think you’re right.
        Where I differ is I just don’t think Microsoft can win at this point.

        As you said, no one is really looking for a third option.

        Microsoft enthusiasts inside the company and out still seem to have this vision of a company that will inevitably succeed by its third try. I’m not sure that’s the case here and if they can’t gain traction in the phone market they’ll have poured a lot of resources down a drain. Resources they need elsewhere.

        Which is essentially my point. They need to either give up or decide at what point they will give up. Otherwise they’ll kill the company while attempting to save it.

  • Asgard

    And might I add, it is not Microsoft’s fault if others like Google do not give permission to MS to create apps for their services, or make it even technically impossible by blocking access to data.
    However, MS have their own version for almost any meaningful service and I totally agree they should improve their own stuff much more, integrate and create wider experiences than any other company even can. Now they are just wasting their opportunities. They should even fight back with things like Android/iOS Skype and any Android/iOS enterprise support (but of course be careful at the same time).

  • Asgard

    And might I add, it is not Microsoft’s fault if others like Google do not give permission to MS to create apps for their services, or make it even technically impossible by blocking access to data.
    However, MS have their own version for almost any meaningful service and I totally agree they should improve their own stuff much more, integrate and create wider experiences than any other company even can. Now they are just wasting their opportunities. They should even fight back with things like Android/iOS Skype and any Android/iOS enterprise support (but of course be careful at the same time).

  • Avatar Roku

    Windows Live was a disaster up until this year. SkyDrive was worthless with no desktop app, a 100MB file upload limit, no way to transfer folders, no way to increase your storage limit. Hotmail’s interface was stuck in the dark ages and the name had become an embarrassment. Office Webs apps were also underbaked and not touch friendly at all. Office 2013 dramatically improved cloud integration with Skydrive as did Windows 8 as a whole. Messenger in the US also suffered a similar fate as Hotmail and the integration with Skype is welcome here. In fact Skype usage and SkyDrive usage has increased dramatically in the past year thanks to the changes that were made.

    There are places for criticism: the destruction and downgrade of Zune with Xbox Music app, the bizarre lack of an update to Hotmail calendar, the slow and problematic integration of Skype into Windows Phone and Xbox, the lack of Xbox Video compatibility on WP8, etc.

    But on the whole Microsoft has dramatically improved their cloud services and software offerings in the past year. The Bing apps for Windows 8 are all very good. This is the best “Windows Live” has ever been. Even the decision to dump the “Live” name which nobody understood and unify services around a Microsoft Account was a good decision.

  • Avatar Roku

    Windows Live was a disaster up until this year. SkyDrive was worthless with no desktop app, a 100MB file upload limit, no way to transfer folders, no way to increase your storage limit. Hotmail’s interface was stuck in the dark ages and the name had become an embarrassment. Office Webs apps were also underbaked and not touch friendly at all. Messenger in the US also suffered a similar fate as Hotmail and the integration with Skype is welcome here. In fact Skype usage and SkyDrive usage has increased dramatically in the past year thanks to the changes that were made.

    There are places for criticism: the destruction and downgrade of Zune with Xbox Music app, the bizarre lack of an update to Hotmail calendar, the slow and problematic integration of Skype into Windows Phone and Xbox, the lack of Xbox Video compatibility on WP8, etc.

    But on the whole Microsoft has dramatically improved their cloud services and software offerings in the past year. The Bing apps for Windows 8 are all very good. This is the best “Windows Live” has ever been. Even the decision to dump the “Live” name which nobody understood and unify services around a Microsoft Account was a good decision.

  • JSYOUNG571

    FINALLY! Someone is seeing what I have been complaining about for years. It took a Google stunt for people to finally wake and realize how bad Microsoft is relying on third parties instead of focusing on their own services.

  • JSYOUNG571

    FINALLY! Someone is seeing what I have been complaining about for years. It took a Google stunt for people to finally wake and realize how bad Microsoft is relying on third parties instead of focusing on their own services.

  • http://sanatgersappa.tumblr.com/ Sanat Gersappa

    Great post. To be honest, I gave up on this platform when they lost ‘Metro’. It may sound silly, but for me, it was the smell of something bigger – and that is becoming evident now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sanat-Gersappa/701446679 Sanat Gersappa

    Great post. To be honest, I gave up on this platform when they lost ‘Metro’. It may sound silly, but for me, it was the smell of something bigger – and that is becoming evident now.

  • http://www.windowsobserver.com/ Richard Hay

    Terrific post Kip and right on the mark. The built in apps for Windows 8 should be examples of what can really be done with the Modern Interface.

  • http://www.windowsobserver.com/ Richard Hay

    Terrific post Kip and right on the mark. The built in apps for Windows 8 should be examples of what can really be done with the Modern Interface.

  • eternaloptimist1971

    I don’t find anything wrong with Xbox Live Music, but then again I don’t have a Windows 8 phone. I wasn’t as impressed with Windows Mail/People/Messenger app

  • http://www.facebook.com/PositiveNRG Christopher King

    I don’t find anything wrong with Xbox Live Music, but then again I don’t have a Windows 8 phone. I wasn’t as impressed with Windows Mail/People/Messenger app

  • SchranzHanz

    Very good post, Kip! Couldn’t agree more. MS is just not investing enough into apps at the moment. I can just hope they’ll get the message…

  • SchranzHanz

    Very good post, Kip! Couldn’t agree more. MS is just not investing enough into apps at the moment. I can just hope they’ll get the message…

  • Chris_Kez

    Couldn’t you argue that apps are just an extension of the “services” mantra, that they simply provide an interface for those services? I’m not sure that the two are mutually exclusive. I think what you’re arguing for is simply a focus on developing a better user experience for their consumer-facing services.

    • http://www.LiveSide.net Kip Kniskern – LiveSide.net

      I think apps are, or should be, an extension of services, as you say. The Windows 8 apps (Mail, etc.) are far more of an example of platform and tools / “hello world” thinking than they are of building world class 1st party apps, which is what I think is needed, and somewhat of a different mindset than what we’re seeing now.

  • coachkecz

    Couldn’t you argue that apps are just an extension of the “services” mantra, that they simply provide an interface for those services? I’m not sure that the two are mutually exclusive. I think what you’re arguing for is simply a focus on developing a better user experience for their consumer-facing services.

    • http://www.LiveSide.net Kip Kniskern – LiveSide.net

      I think apps are, or should be, an extension of services, as you say. The Windows 8 apps (Mail, etc.) are far more of an example of platform and tools / “hello world” thinking than they are of building world class 1st party apps, which is what I think is needed, and somewhat of a different mindset than what we’re seeing now.