Microsoft has an ambitious comeback plan that might actually work: Peter Nowak

“Be all things to all people”

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Under new chief executive Satya Nadella, Microsoft is charging ahead with a “universal app” strategy – the idea that software developers can create an app once and then deliver it to each of the company’s devices, whether it’s PCs, tablets, phones or even Xbox consoles, without much additional work. This one-app-to-rule-them-all approach is how the company plans to overcome its disadvantage in phones and tablets, where it is way behind Apple and Google in terms of market share and total number of apps. A simplified and unified experience could indeed be the secret to luring developers away from its two rivals, both of whom run different operating systems depending on which devices they’re using.

I spoke with Windows Phone director Greg Sullivan last week at Microsoft’s annual Build conference in San Francisco about the plan and why it could work. I also sat down with Mary-Ellen Anderson from Microsoft Canada to get the local perspective. As vice-president of the developer and platform group, she’s in charge of recruiting companies and individuals to create apps for Windows devices here in the snowy north. With the company having success in securing the biggest app developers, its focus is now shifting to a more local level.

“We need to get the [apps] people care about in Canada,” Anderson said. “That’s a big, big deal for me.”

Microsoft has managed to get about 245,000 apps into the Windows store, which is still a far cry from the million-plus that both Apple and Android have, but executives are generally pleased with the progress. When Windows 8 launched for phones, tablets and PCs in 2012, the company’s priority was to sign up the 100 most-used apps, including the likes of Netflix, Facebook and Instagram. With that mission accomplished, the company is now working on a country-by-country basis, with an eye to getting the most important local brands on board. In Canada, Anderson said, this includes newspapers and TV stations, as well as banks.

Microsoft has succeeded in recruiting most of the media companies and is now working on financial institutions, with RBC already on board. The local approach, extrapolated globally, is helping to push Windows ahead of a certain former Canadian champion in mobile.

“By no means do I want to see a situation where a Canadian company like BlackBerry isn’t doing well, but we’re now in the envious position of being third and we hope to some day be second or first,” Anderson said, who ran MSN Canada prior to taking on her role as an “evangelist” to developers.

Perhaps the most interesting part of our conversation was about the scale needed to compete in the mobile market. As Google and Apple are demonstrating, companies can’t come at it with just one device – they have to be able to offer customers everything, not just a phone. In that vein, BlackBerry – which only really had that one device, notwithstanding its disastrous foray into tablets – never really stood a chance.

“You can’t have a fabulous PC and not have a fantastic phone and even now, a TV experience. You want people to have a platform. It’s services too. You also have to have a really great music experience and a great movie experience,” Anderson said. “Moving forward, you have to be all things to all people and that’s a big challenge.”

This fact seems especially true when it comes to hardware. As I’ve written before, devices get commoditizedvery quickly, which means their real value comes from the software and services running on them. BlackBerry’s software and security is certainly valuable, but it’s only now – probably way too late – that the company is coming to realize that.

With that logic, it’s hard to look at a company such as Roku and not see the same writing on the wall. As a company dealing with the media-streaming-player niche, it’s up against huge megaliths including Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Sony, all of whom offer not just similar devices, but also a host of related hardware and services. Roku is smartly partnering with TV makers and apparently looking to make the transition from hardware to software, but the question is whether it will be able to make that switch fast enough.

While there are exceptions in certain niches, Anderson said that consumers now have certain expectations of their hardware providers. “You have to be all things to all people.”

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