Microsoft's alt-OS strategy strikes loyalists as class warfare

Windows users may feel like second-class citizens as Microsoft continues to push its products and services onto alternate platforms.

Long-time Windows users may feel like second-class citizens as Microsoft continues to push its products and services onto alternate platforms, but the problem will clear up next year, analysts predicted today.

"It's a question of whether Microsoft is sending a deliberate signal or just shipping things when they're ready," said Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research about Microsoft's new-found favoritism for Android and iOS. "The problem is that if you send a message to one group, you end up sending messages to others. And sometimes that can backfire."

By "backfire," Dawson was referring to the undercurrent among Microsoft and Windows loyalists who have expressed concern -- in emails to Computerworld, comments on stories there, on other outlets' news stories, and even on Microsoft's own blogs -- that they're getting the short end of the stick from many of the moves made during 2014.

While the most notable example remains Office for iPad -- which was released in March, likely a year-plus before something comparable arrives for Windows -- the list ranges from the pseudo-layout Sway and Outlook 2015 on OS X to Cortana and the acquisition of Acompli. The more Microsoft launches products and services first on non-Windows OSes, buys companies that specialize in Android or iOS, or simply makes once-Windows-only features available on competing platforms, the more uneasy it makes Windows fans.

"I am personally totally fine with Microsoft developing apps for iOS or Android," wrote someone identified as danielgr in a comment appended to a Microsoft blog announcing new versions of Office on the iPhone last month. "And yet I am EXTREMELY disappointed to see those capabilities going well beyond anything Microsoft offers on its own platform. That wouldn't be bad for a week, a month or two, but then you tell me that I'll have to wait over half a year to get something I could get right now if I bought an iPhone."

The angst has been building since Satya Nadella stepped into Steve Ballmer's CEO shoes. His first day on the job, Nadella refashioned Microsoft's strategy as "cloud first, mobile first" and quickly pushed to put as much of Microsoft as possible on non-Windows OSes. That only sped up this summer when Nadella struck another motto: Productivity and platform.

There has been no sign of a let-up.

Last week, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner, parroting Nadella, said, "Our uniqueness is really about our ability to reinvent productivity ... and we're going to do that across mobile, and so that any device can become your device regardless of the operating system (emphasis added)." Later, Turner seemed to put Windows in the "afterthought" category. "We're also still going to run great on the Windows platform and continue to bring it along there, too." he said.

Yikes.

For some analysts, the push beyond Windows was not only smart but a sign that Microsoft had sniffed some reality smelling salts. "They have to face market trends," said Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft. "People on iOS pay money for apps, there are lots of Android devices, and then there's Windows Phone. It's Microsoft's [financial] responsibility to go where the users are on mobile, and that's not Windows Phone."

Others echoed Miller's necessary-evil take but also delved into the why.

"Products for its own platforms were far more advanced than for alternative platforms, so Microsoft has a lot more to do on other platforms than on Windows," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver in an email. "This also means that Windows platforms are likely evolving more slowly anyway. [And] Microsoft has a lot of internal expertise on Windows platforms and less on others, so acquisitions, which are more visible, are more likely to be done for supporting alternative platforms."

Analysts agreed, more or less, that the emphasis on everything but Windows was more a result of timing, resources and the rethink of strategy at Redmond than a deliberate snub. But some saw it as exactly that nonetheless.

"When the biggest base is pushed back in a queue, you're now a second-class citizen," said Dawson.

Microsoft was simply between the proverbial rock and a hard place, said Silver. "Microsoft is damned if they do and damned if they don't, aren't they? How many articles were there over the past few years about how far behind Microsoft was in addressing other platform?" Silver noted. "Now, they're addressing other platforms and they're being faulted for it."

But while loyalists' resentment is real, it will probably be temporary, the experts argued. As Microsoft rolls out, for instance, the next version of Office on Windows, including a long-awaited touch-centric edition, the sniping there should stop.

"This will correct in 2015," predicted Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "Once you get to Windows 10, which looks like a very, very high-quality platform, [a touch-centric] Office will scale not only to ARM but also x86 tablets and PCs."

Miller chimed in, too. "What we're seeing is that the next version of Office and Windows 10 will go out at the same time. And the new Office will be the best experience when you're using that platform," he said. He also called this in-between moment "awkward," and blamed at least part of Microsoft's problem with its boosters on an inability to make its own smartphones compelling.

But the world will never be what it once was for Windows' proponents -- something they'll have to learn to accept no matter how cockamamie they think it is.

"Most favored nation status is over," said Miller.

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