Microsoft hasn’t had a great time with mobile. While we can debate whether or not Windows Phone is finally dead, Microsoft is certainly ready to move on. After missing the mobile boat, Microsoft is now trying to sneak onto iOS and Android devices like a stealthy submarine. We’ve seen the company focus on iOS and Android apps before, but at the Build event in Seattle this week the message is clear: Microsoft is finally being realistic.
Microsoft’s new push is to convince Windows users it can help them resume activities and apps even if they’re using an iPhone or Android device. The idea is simple: it doesn’t matter what devices you’re using in the Microsoft world as long as one of them is Windows. Microsoft has a number of different tricks to try and make this a reality, and it truly believes it can help make iOS and Android devices better as a result.
I sat down with Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore during an unusually sunny day in Seattle this week to try and understand the company’s latest mobile efforts. Belfiore returned to Microsoft after a year out traveling the world with his family. To many, he is the face of Windows Phone, an operating system he championed and helped nurture to life. A year of traveling the world will have a profound effect on anyone, but Belfiore also used this time to experiment heavily with other platforms. He’s tweeted his quirky hairdos with an iPhone, visited schools thousands of miles from Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle, and generally experienced life away from a town where you’ll see people walking around in Cortana t-shirts while using Windows Phones. His journey let him see a world most of Microsoft doesn’t; Seattle itself is often a weird bubble that’s too influenced by Microsoft to properly reflect reality.
Belfiore seems to get it more than ever now, and Microsoft is reacting. Belfiore set out a scenario of a typical Windows user to me, and one that uses multiple devices that aren’t always powered by Windows. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella predicts that at some point everyone is going to have an average of six devices they use regularly, and Microsoft knows most of them won’t be running Windows. Microsoft’s response is to make experiences on iOS and Android devices better. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s a lot more useful to the average Windows user than trying to sell them a Windows-powered phone.
Microsoft is unveiling a number of new features in Windows 10 today that will improve the experience of moving content to devices like an iPhone or Android handset. You could argue that many of these new features are inspired by Apple’s macOS, but Microsoft isn’t trying to lock you into its ecosystem to make use of them. Right now, it’s a little complicated if you want to use a Windows laptop and an iPhone or Android device. Microsoft has a variety of apps for these platforms, but they don’t always talk to each other as well as they should.
“There’s work we can do to help people live in that complex life in a more orchestrated kind of way,” explains Belfiore. “We’re going to do a bunch of work that’s focused on the idea of Windows PCs love devices.” This new love of devices that don’t run Windows is a little odd coming from Microsoft, but it fits into the message that CEO Satya Nadella has constantly pushed; Microsoft is interested in the person behind the screen, not just what software they’re using.
Microsoft is introducing new Timeline and Cortana features that let you resume apps where you left off on other Windows 10 devices, and even iPhone and Android phones. The company is also using its Microsoft Graph cloud service to enable developers to link their apps across phones and PCs. The Graph will act as the gateway to let these mobile apps talk to their desktop counterparts and provide rich functionality like resuming exact reading points in a news app, or simply continuing to edit a Word document at the right paragraph. “What we hope people will do is, once you have users at least engaging if not loving your apps, log your activities in the Graph,” says Belfiore. “When this happens, we work through the Windows shell and Cortana will help to promote app experiences so people can pick up where you left off.”
This pick up where you left off concept will also include a clipboard feature that lets you copy content from a Windows 10 PC directly to an iPhone or Android device. Microsoft is making use of its SwiftKey acquisition to bring this clipboard functionality directly to the keyboard on these devices, so any app will support it.
It all feels like very early days, but it’s certainly a big and bold bet. Microsoft is shifting to make other devices better, especially ones that don’t run Windows. Microsoft’s bet here is to move Windows experiences beyond the laptop or PC and into apps that are meaningful on smartphones that will help keep consumers coming back to Windows. “We’re trying to meet all of our Windows users where they really are in their day-to-day lives,” says Belfiore.
This isn’t going to be easy for Microsoft. Apple restricts its ecosystem in a number of different ways, especially when it comes to accessing things as simple as text messages. That’s not stopping Microsoft, though. “One big difference about what we’re doing from what I’ve seen Apple doing so far is that we’re really embracing devices broadly,” explains Belfiore. “We’re really going to provide a high degree of flexibility to end users and to our customers to pick whatever device.”
When there are iOS or Android roadblocks, Belfiore says the company will “do the best we can” to work around them. ” We’re going to try and build the best experience for the customers that have chosen that platform.”
Looking ahead, Microsoft sees itself as the organizer for this cross-platform experience. “In society people are using tons of devices and as yet there’s not a way to orchestrate what you do across them. It’s unorganized,” says Belfiore. “For us what the vision is being human-centered. You’re a person that does different activities and you’re going to choose different devices from different companies so we’re going to make sense of that for you.”
Will Microsoft succeed here and provide a digital life for consumers across iOS, Android, and Windows? Microsoft is going to give it a serious shot. “We’re going to try.”