No matter which way you look at it, 2013 came to define Microsoft. Some have claimed that it was the company’s decision to mostly continue the road it began driving down with Windows 8 that marked the company’s resurgence as an actual contender for top-teir technology company.
Others feel that the Microsoft’s endeavors weren’t defined internally. Instead, they argue that it was competition from Apple and Google that shaped it the most. It’s my opinion that these people aren’t exactly wrong, but aren’t looking at the entire picture. Instead, I think there were more than a few trends that came into play.
We’ve heard Microsoft tout the advantages of the cloud for a long time now. In fact, the company has talked up online storage and the like since it first introduced Windows Live Mesh in 2008. However, the company’s online ecosystem has only really began to make sense in the two years or so. Microsoft might have revamped Live Mesh and introduced it to the world as SkyDrive, however it spent most of 2013 strengthening its position. Microsoft completely integrated SkyDrive into Windows with the release of Windows 8.1, and it also spent the rest of the year building out native apps on iOS and Android.
The company hasn’t limited its cloud initiatives to SkyDrive either. So comfortable had Microsoft become in building in cloud features that its initial plans for the Xbox One required users to remain connected to the internet every day. This way gamers could build a digital games library that they could share with friends and family effortlessly. Sadly, the idea of needing to be connected rubbed some users the wrong way and Microsoft scrapped the idea of a cloud game sharing. However, Xbox Live Compute, the system that allows developers to offload calculations to Microsoft’s own servers and create ever-changing worlds, remains. Forza 5 uses this system to let players earn in-game credit for their profile by competing against other users while they are actually offline. User can still build digital game libraries too, though they can’t yet share them with friends.
If 2012 was the year Microsoft learned how to fight rival products from Apple and Google then 2013 is the year the company decided to listen to customer feedback. By most accounts Windows 8.1 was an apology of sorts. With the update users are able return the Start Button to its place on the taskbar and they can also deactivate many of the new user interface elements that Microsoft added with Windows 8.
The Xbox Team also learned a thing or two about internet mobs and seriously bad public relations. After announcing the Xbox One at an event in late May, Microsoft failed to share details about the console’s controversial connectivity policies. In fact, public reaction to not being able to play the Xbox One offline for more than a single day became so toxic to the Xbox brand that Microsoft had to can the sharing features that required daily server check-ins and launch an online campaign designed to educate users about the things the console did and didn’t do.
In both cases some would argue that bowing to public pressure made these products less useful. While I think that’s true, I also happen to believe that Microsoft made the choice because it listened to general user feedback.
Only time will tell if these trends made Microsoft’s products better. Certainly, embracing cloud computing enables the company to lead a new frontier in personal computing. Listening to consumers isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. I suppose we’ll find out in 2014.