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.

Back to the iPhone again

Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in!

I just started my new job, and on the first day they handed me my shiny new company phone: a Verizon iPhone 4. It’s preloaded with iOS 5.1, so I’ve been using it as my only phone for the week and I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised.

The screen is as sharp as I remembered, and no adjustment at all coming from the 720p screen of the Galaxy Nexus. While I still like Roboto, I’d forgotten how charming and clean Helvetica Neue feels. The screen on the iPhone is almost comically small compared to the Galaxy Nexus side by side, but viewed by itself, it’s fine. And I definitely do notice how much easier the iPhone is to use one-handed. My thumb can actually reach across the screen!

Let’s talk software. The biggest change I’ve noticed in iOS 5.1 is the new notification system. I’m not sure how much I like it yet. It feels like a mashup of the Android 4 and webOS notifications, which is essentially what it is. Apple took the ideas that they liked from their competitors and bolted them together. I’d like more variety in widgets (I’m only using Weather), but I really do like the ability to swipe directly across a notification popup on the lock screen to go right to that event. I’d say it puts iOS on par with the competition, but not ahead.

The iOS multitasking system still feels a little primitive compared to the thumbnails you see on Android and webOS. But it is snappy, which Android’s thumbnails sometimes aren’t, even on Google’s flagship device.

Finding apps to do everything I did on Android hasn’t actually been difficult at all. Instead of Epistle on Android to edit markdown-formatted text files on my Dropbox, I use Elements (the two are so similar I’d be surprised if Elements weren’t the inspiration for Epistle). I use Pocket Casts for podcast listening on both platforms. Evernote is mostly the same on both platforms (see below). And on iOS, I have EgretList again to help me use Evernote as a GTD system. Rdio, Pandora, WordPress, Roku, Google+, Google Voice… all pretty much the same on both platforms.

Currently, I’m reading in the Kindle app, which is actually a bit more advanced than the Android version. It supports “personal documents”, so I can email whatever .mobi formatted books I want out of my Calibre library to my Kindle email address and download them as fully functional ebooks in the iOS Kindle app. I also have Stanza installed and attached to my Calibre library, so I could read that way too if so inclined.

While we’re talking about reading, Flipboard, where have you been all my life? While iOS has a perfectly functional Google Currents app and a plethora of Google Reader apps, I can understand why people tout Flipboard as one of the great exclusive features of iOS. The layout is slick and attractive while also being quick, minimalist and easy to use. And being able to read Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr and Instagram all in one app is… ahhhh. If only it supported Reddit (using AlienBlue until it does) and Google+, it’d be perfect. Of course, the latter will require Google to release the gorram APIs.

It’s not all unicorns and bunnies, though. iOS still doesn’t support widgets on the home screen, and this is turning out to be a bigger impediment than I would have thought. Particularly with Evernote, the inability to quickly create a new note or voice transcription is slowing me down.

So, am I on iOS for good? Regular readers know that’s a ridiculous question. I change platforms the way some people change underwear. But yeah, I think I’m going to keep using the iPhone as my daily driver for a while. Part of it is practicality: I have to carry the iPhone for work, and if I can do with it what I can do with the Galaxy Nexus, why carry both? But mostly it’s just that I’m really enjoying seeing what iOS can do these days.

I will keep using the Galaxy Nexus for reviews, and for testing so that when I explain a new trick here, I can tell you how to do it on iOS and Android.