First things first: the name had to go. Wait. Let me back up.
By now, nearly anyone on Earth who has the leisure time to be entertained, or is working on something more technologically advanced than agriculture, is doing so using a screen as an intermediary. Humans who are off Earth, of course, are literally living and dying based on the performance of their screens.
Within living memory, live entertainment was primarily enjoyed by people close enough to the actors/singers/athletes to feel the actual heat from their bodies. And then the movie theater. The television. The Computer. The e-book reader. The smartphone. These screens did not merely displace physically being at a live event; they created even more space in which that live event could exist in a very real way. People cheering for Team Mexico in any bar in the world are doing so simultaneously with the people at the stadium cheering for Team Mexico in person.
It isn’t merely the watching of live events that have been revolutionized by screens. Work, as well, has been forever changed. I am writing this on a device that is only usable because it has a screen. I work at a restaurant–one that is wholly at the mercy of screen uptime. Photoshop and GIMP have even turned most forms of pictorial art (certainly its commercial cousin) into screen-based activities. Accounting? No more need to cramp our hands and stain them with graphite or ink. Since the invention of the calculator, accounting has been given over to the screen. The screen-based spreadsheet is a dream come true for a work obsessed numbers nerd. Etcetera. So forth. Even farming. Unless you are so far down the farm chain that you are literally picking crops by hand, you are using a screen to design, buy, sell, ship, or account for those crops. Or using a screen to track the labor of people who are.
Screens are incredibly important. The companies that want to own the world need to figure out how to own the screens. Inexplicably, Microsoft has failed to even compete. Yes. Microsoft. That’s the point of this post.
A few years ago they very nearly had all the pieces in place to make your home life a bit better, a bit smoother, and a bit more interesting. Their efforts over the past few years have shown that they don’t quite understand (or their corporate culture refuses to let them meaningfully cooperate to enact) how various screens can work together to form a stronger whole.
In 2014, in the homes of most Americans, there are roughly 4 screens that get used on a regular basis. The 3-5 inch screen in your pocket (the phone), the 7 or 10 inch screen (the tablet) that has no specific home, but is an auxiliary screen for a whole lot of various tasks. Then there’s the 11-24 inch screen (computer, either lap- or desk- top), which is generally used for business and games. Its other functions taken over by newer form factors. And then finally the 36 inch and bigger television.
These are the broad categories. There is a lot of overlap. Tellingly, each of these screens is attached to a rather powerful computer. But the computer itself is not the important part. The computer does not really dictate the function to which people put the screen. Nor does the power of the computer dictate the size of the screen. This next bit is really important, so it will get its own paragraph.
The size of the screen is decided based on the place in which the screen will be used, and the interface for that screen is decided based on the size of the screen.
I am willing to concede a lot of quibbling around the edges. There are, for instance, a lot of 8 inch tablets. I do know that it takes more processing power to run a 5 inch screen than it does a 4 inch screen. And so a specific designer might well decide which size screen to give their phone based on how much power they can cram onto a chip. Nor does it matter whether a TV can be given the same processing power of a modern desktop PC tricked out for gaming. There are a whole lot of edge cases, but let us not get cut on them.
The important point is that we first decide on the function, then we figure out how much “oomph” that function will require, and how much it will cost to create that “oomph”.
Another important general point to remember: there is a sort of normal (bell) curve where we can put “ease of content creation” on one axis and “size of screen” on the other. As an example, try visualizing writing an entire novel on your 4 inch phone. Now try visualizing writing that same novel on a 60 inch TV. These things are possible, but… no. Just no. I don’t mean to imply that there is a perfect screen size, but there are definitely ones more suited for purpose.
So: if I wanted to be the software/hardware company that “owned” the inside of people’s houses, what would I do?
First, I’d make sure that I had a device for each of the screens. I’d make sure that any component of those devices that could be broken out into a separate app would be broken out into a separate app. For instance, the thing I use to play music on my phone should be something I can download onto phones not mine. And also onto TVs that have someone else’s software running them. Etc and so forth.
Secondly, I’d make it very easy for people to import stuff from outside my garden as possible. Notice that I’m taking it for granted that there will be a store, and that this store will help me make money from my devices. Additionally, I’d make it easy for people to leave my garden, if they want. My garden might have walls, but those walls will be adorable and attractive hedgerows People are significantly more likely to attend a party when they know they won’t be taken hostage.
Thirdly, I’d make sure that I had a user interface that was as similar as possible across as many of these screens as possible. I would want to make doing things on my devices as familiar as possible, and that means having people doing the same sorts of things over and over again. If I touch the screen on my phone, tablet, computer, or TV in the same way, I should get the same result. How do you touch the screen on your TV? Glad you asked. More on that later.
Fourthly, any bit of software that an end-user brings into my garden should be usable on any screen an end-user wants to use. I said earlier that my mind recoils at the idea of writing a novel on a 60 inch TV. When talking with a friend, I said that “writing on a wall is how movies demonstrate madness”. But hey! If a mad-person wants to process words on their giant TV, that’s their prerogative. But more on that in a bit.
So how does this work in practice? I wake up and grab my phone to scan headlines/read twitter/whatever. Something grabs my interest for further reading, and I send it to my tablet- reading things in a relaxed manner is the killer app of tablets. The article is about a book, so I buy a copy and it sends to all of my devices. I’ve got a bit of time before work, so I finish up a presentation while on my desktop computer. On the drive to my train station, I start listening to the book on my phone (which I can plug into my car’s audio system). On the train, I am able to start reading the book from where I left off the audio portion. I get to work and have to put the book away in my pocket. Best believe I’ll be reading it whenever I need to use the restroom. Now it’s time for work, though. I’ve got a presentation to give!
I log onto the screen in the conference room using the limited-rights “work” setting- the setting that lets me have full rights, but lets my employer and coworkers have some ability to see some of the things I’m doing. My presentation seamlessly appears on the screen in front of me, and I spent some time biting my nails before people file in. During the event I am able to use gesture controls as I talk, showing people the slides I’ve prepared. At the end, a question emerges which causes me to dig into my original data. I am able to do this using the same basic UI as I would on a tablet, the gesture controls on the TV simulating a touch UI on a smaller device.
Do I need to go on? The idea is that the same sorts of data can be used in different ways based on the screen size available. It may not always make sense for me to play a game on both a PC and a tablet- but if I buy the next Batman game, there’s no reason I can’t play it on both my TV and my desk. I understand why a book is a separate thing from an audio book, but if I buy both, they really should interact. And so on.
The important idea here is that the software industry has decided that we are not buying “good”, but rather buying “a licence for a service”. Additionally, every industry that can get away with the transition has decided that they, too, are selling licenses for services. If that’s the case, than my license should work wherever the user ends up. Smart companies are the ones which understand that. The winning companies will be the ones that make it work.
Etc and so Microsoft.
They had all the pieces in front of them. They had a phone. Moreover–they had a phone with a UI that was actually distinct from Android and iOS. I want to marvel at the fact that they had something which a) didn’t copy their competitors, and b) still worked really well. That’s hard to pull off. With the Surface they had a good tablet, with a good UI that also worked on the phone.
Their desktop… this is where they ran into problems. Oddly enough, everything I’ve heard about Windows 8 tells me that its primary problem was not the UI, but rather a violation of the second point. It was their garden, they owned it, and they never ever wanted you to leave it. Knowing they’d done something their users would react very negatively to caused them to then violate point three, by bolting the “classic” interface onto the operating system. Which then left people wondering why they would want to buy Windows 8 when they would be spending all their time in the Windows 7 interface.
No matter how defensible the decision might be on its own terms, the desire to own an entire locked-down garden caused enough negative side effects that it seems to have damaged the entire project. The problem is that it took away a lot, without giving anything in return.
Finally, Microsoft owned the TV. At least: they were creating a device specifically designed to be the perfect counterpart to the TV. Their Kinnect device even allowed them to use the same touch-UI on the TV as users had gotten used to using on tablets and phones. That’s brilliant. The name of the overall TV package? X-Box One. Sorry. That’s a bit of a clunker. That was the first thing that needed to go. I’ll get back to that.
Much like with their desktop offerings, Microsoft did not talk about all the cool stuff users would gain by transitioning from a “goods” model to a “service” model. Instead, all we heard about was the stuff that would be taken away. Partly this was poor messaging. But mostly it stemmed from thinking about X-Box as being a business unit, rather than thinking of X-Box as being the living room component of the Microsoft garden.
Microsoft crafted the perfect under-TV device for my father. But the problem was the name. My father- 65 year old retiree who watches TV and listens to music but does not play video games- would simply not buy any device called “X-Box”. An X-Box is a video game console. It is not the perfect compliment to the home media experience. So the first thing to go should have been the name.
The Live Box One (or something like that) marketed and sold as a complement to Windows 8, could very well have been a monster hit. They want me inside their garden. So tell me that “everything you purchase from the Microsoft Live Marketplace will be usable by you from wherever you log on- phone, living room, office. On your Surface Tablet or Desktop computer. Wherever you live, there’s Live.” Or something. I’m not a marketing expert. I’m just a consumer who wants things.
The good news is that Microsoft has all the pieces they need. I’m probably underestimating the amount of work it would take for them to start working as a coherent entity. Mostly, I think it will require a change of philosophy rather than a change in the direction or sophistication of their software. Their hardware is pretty good also.
Microsoft may never get there. Someone will, though. Someone will build me the better home garden I want to live in. I can’t wait.