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Why Microsoft is back

Something has changed at Microsoft.

A paradigm shift.

They not only get it, but they are back to innovating and trendsetting.

Here is the list of hardware items they announced at their New York event last week:

  1. Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL (flagship phones)
  2. Lumia 550 (affordable phone that starts at $139!)
  3. Display Dock for hooking up your Lumia 950 to a monitor and keyboard (your phone is now a PC!)
  4. Surface Pro 4 (with a new Surface pencil with eraser)
  5. Surface Book (Microsoft's first laptop) (I really want one) (pre-orders already sold out)
  6. Hololens development kit (this announcement and demo alone was incredible, blows Google glass out of the water)
  7. Microsoft Band (Microsoft's wearable "fitbit-esque" device)

I'm neither an Apple or Microsoft "fanboy". I have an iPhone 6, a Dell XPS 13 laptop running Windows 10, a Nexus 7 Android tablet, and a Kindle. I'm pragmatic. I like to optimize price-to-value. Therefore if I can get a great laptop for $800, I cannot justify spending 50% more on an equivalent laptop that boasts the Apple logo.

When it comes to phones, I'll be the first to admit that in the consumer space Apple won. As of today no one produces a better phone. But after Microsoft's Lumia unveilings they may be on to something for the enterprise market. Especially with the Display Dock support.

But as far as computers, specifically laptops, the difference that existed between Apple and Microsoft has dissipated. 15 years ago I'd be the first to say that Apple's obnoxiously high markup on their computers was justified. They not only had superior hardware, but superior software. Macs didn't crash. No blue screens of death. Easy to use. All good.

But on August 24, 2001 Microsoft released Windows XP. All of the sudden things started to get better in the world of Microsoft. It had a solid decade run until it was overtaken by market share in August 2012 by Windows 7. (I'll gloss over Vista because that was unfortunately a disaster).

Microsoft did something bold with Windows 8 . But unfortunately it was too much for users to push the Windows key on their keyboards to get to the start menu. And why are those tiles changing? I loved Windows 8 and I didn't understand these criticisms against it. But Windows 8 was a great sign. Not only had Microsoft accepted the importance of design (thanks Apple), but they showed that they were willing to take risks and innovate in design. Windows is Microsoft. It is their cash cow. The fact that they took the risk with the flagship product was a sign that times were changing at Microsoft.

And then on July 29, 2015, Microsoft released Windows 10.

I installed it that same day and haven't looked back since. It's snappier, cleaner, and more inviting to use. I had this sense with Windows 8, but it wasn't as polished. Windows 10 is a hybrid of 7 & 8. It has the utility of Windows 7 and the design elegance of Windows 8. Microsoft really got it right here. I feel enticed to use it. To be more productive and get stuff done. I first started to sense this with Windows 8, but 10 took it to another level.

This longform article on The Verge: "The Story of Windows 10 From Inside Microsoft" is an excellent read about Microsoft's vision for Windows 10.

Some highlights: Windows 10 is free (if you have Windows 7 or 8. If you are still on Windows XP or my personal favorite, 98, no beans for you). To regurgitate, this is a very bold step for a company whose biggest source of revenue is Windows.

Windows 10 is Microsoft's "last" operating system. No one at Microsoft is currently working on Windows 11. The Windows team is focused on collecting feedback, iterating on Windows 10, and releasing updates on a recurring basis. Windows 10 will just get better and better over time.

One OS shared across all devices. This is huge. All of the hardware I listed above (except for the Microsoft band) is powered by Windows 10. You can even connect your Xbox to your Windows 10 machine and stream an Xbox game on your computer. For developers this means one code base for an app that could potentially be used on Hololens, a Lumia phone, a Surface tablet, and PC.

My favorite moment from the keynote was the Staffpad demo for Surface 4. Sure some may call it cheesy, but I thought it was a really great moment. It touches an emotion. The balance of art and tech that only Apple supposedly understood is being captured by Microsoft. But they aren't blatantly copying Apple, they are doing it in their own way.

Microsoft is cool again, and it's great for consumers and the tech industry.