How Microsoft could have conquered computing

Last week I wrote about why Windows 8 is shaping up to be Microsoft’s biggest disaster since Windows Me. In the time since, Microsoft has pushed further ahead, now alienating small indie developers. They announced that they were discontinuing Visual Studio Express, the free development environment for Windows apps as we currently know them. Going forward, the only free tools Microsoft will provide will be to develop Metro apps. If you want to support users running old, antiquated software like say, Windows 7, you’re going to have to pony up the dough. Bye, hobbyist developers! Don’t let the door hit you in the ass!

Now, don’t get me wrong. Microsoft is going to sell a ton of copies of Windows 8. Consumers who don’t know any better are going to be stuck with it. Enterprise accounts will buy millions and millions of copies of Windows 8, and then promptly (and legally) downgrade to Windows 7. My point last week is that because of Microsoft’s muddled, fractured thinking, very few people are going to want Windows 8.

But it didn’t have to be that way. Join me now for a peek into an alternate universe where Microsoft approached things a little differently.

The first thing they did was take their existing positive branding from the Xbox and use that to give their phones a consumer kick. In a lot of ways, Windows Phones really are Xbox phones in our universe, integrated with Xbox Live. It wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch to box them up in the same familiar black, white and green boxes and call them Xphones. The Metro UI on both platforms remains the same, we’re just talking about change in packaging in this Fringe-style alternate universe.

The result? Enterprise adoption of the Xphone is about the same, but it’s much more popular with consumers, especially if Microsoft starts doing bundling promotions like free hot Xbox games with the purchase of a new Xphone on contract.

Now Microsoft can leverage that user base of Xphones to get them to also buy the Xtab, a Metro-based 7″ consumer tablet priced at $199, competing with the Kindle Fire and undercutting the iPad. The Xtab is also ARM-based, running the ARM variant of Windows 8 we call Windows RT. Microsoft has included a compatibility layer that allows Xphone apps to run unmodified on the Xtab similarly to how iPhone apps run on the iPad, but it’s trivial for developers to update their apps to run “natively” on the Xtab and make use of all the additional benefits of the tablet form factor.

Apps that have been updated to run natively on the Xtab also work on the Intel-based Windows 8 tablets. These range in size from an Xtab-like 7″ to 8.9″ to a 16:9 aspect 10″, and can run both Metro apps and legacy Windows apps. This environment is the most similar to the Windows 8 experience we have in our universe. Whether the apps are universal binaries containing both ARM and Intel code or whether the App Marketplace automatically delivers the binary for the appropriate architecture is irrelevant. It just works. These Intel-based Windows tablets can’t run Xphone apps, but no one expects them to.

Windows 8 on laptops and desktops looks dramatically different than it does in our universe. In the alternate universe, Windows 8 looks like a flattened out, cleaner version of Windows 7, complete with Start orb. All the 3D effects and shading are gone. Aero glass is just a transparent overlays (see new Windows 8 desktop taskbar), but still recognizable. The desktop is still there, and still the default “home” screen for the OS.

Most PCs still don’t have touch screens, but laptops start coming with much larger trackpads to support multitouch gestures that make working with Windows feel similar regardless of where you’re using it.

Corporate users don’t flock to Windows 8 deliberately, especially if they just did a conversion to Windows 7. But neither do they downgrade to 7 on new machines. The desktop UI is similar enough on Windows 8 for it start filtering into large companies through attrition as older PCs are replaced.

Metro apps run on Windows 8 as well, but on the desktop UI they run like desktop apps, with their own minimal window chrome (title bar, close and minimize buttons) and show up in the task bar alongside legacy Windows apps. Over time developers voluntarily start to focus on coding for Metro first, because it’s the one environment that covers the most form factors. Microsoft may even provide a “compatability kit” that backports windowed Metro apps to Windows 7 machines for corporate customers.

And just like that, in this alternate universe Microsoft kept their hold on the corporate market while making serious in roads with consumers. They conditioned a whole new generation of Xbox playing teens and tweens into using Microsoft products for their phones and tablets as well. And they successfully got Metro accepted as the default 21st century development environment.

And all it took was not having our version of Steve Ballmer.

Alas.

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