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Up until a few years ago, experts in the innovation space were using Microsoft as a case study for failing to innovate.
They showed how Microsoft had “missed the boat” on several important technological trends, including losing search to Google, smartphones to Apple, operating systems and Office to Web 2.0 applications and apps to both Apple and Google.
And to a degree, they had a point. Since Bill Gates handed over the reigns of CEO to Steve Ballmer, an Operations-focused Executive, Microsoft had managed to significantly grow its reach, revenue and profitability of its core Windows, Office and Server products. But this focus on current product optimisation and sales came at the expense of looking at future strategy, which is where Microsoft missed all of the opportunities mentioned above. In fact, Stanford University professor Steve Blank has shown that quite often, when visionary company founders finally step down, they are often succeeded by more operations-focused executives to help build more stable growth for the company, but this often leads to decreasing rates of innovation and ultimately stagnation of product lines.
“Our industry does not respect tradition. It only respects innovation.” – Satya Nadella, 4/2/2014
Then in early 2014, Ballmer passed the CEO torch on to Satya Nadella, who was much more aware of the need to stay innovative. And to say that he has managed to restore the innovation momentum at the company would be an understatement.
Within just two months, Nadella had completely changed Microsoft’s core ethos and business model, going from being product-centric to being service-centric. Within a year, he released innovative new hardware concepts to the world like Surface tablets and HoloLens. A few months later, he showed the world that the company was now a major player in hardware innovation with the Surface Book.
And then this week, Microsoft again held their Windows 10 event to show off their newest innovations, including both new hardware and updates to Windows which will have a bigger impact for future generations than you might expect.
Here is a video showing off all of the major announcements:
There are three main highlights I want to focus on here:
- 3D is now a focus of simplicity in Windows: Make no mistake, Microsoft Paint now including 3D drawing might seem insignificant, but this is going have a huge impact 5 – 10 years down the line. Why? Because the main limiting factor preventing adoption of 3D design and 3D printing technologies at the moment is the lack of skills associated with designing 3D objects. And those skills are best developed by introducing people to the concepts early in life, like in childhood. I remember clearly being the first generation to use MS Paint in Windows 3.1, and being excited to fill a shape with a different colour. While that itself is a simple (and somewhat worthless) skill, it starts the interest and learning journey which means I can now use more advanced image software like Photoshop. And in addition to designing objects in 3D in Paint, Microsoft is also producing smartphone camera technology to produce 3D renderings of real objects, and enabling 3D objects from Minecraft to be imported. All of these creations can then be printed using a 3D printer. Hear my prediction now: This is going to be the introduction to 3D design for millions of people which will make the skill mainstream in the next decade.
- The new Surface Studio hardware: Shown in the image at the top of the page was the major hardware announcement from the event: a new all-in-one PC called Surface Studio, built specifically for professional creatives like designers, architects, writers and artists. The machine sports a 28-inch screen with incredible resolution and which is apparently the thinnest screen on the market, touch sensitivity so it can be drawn on like paper, and an integrated hardware box which houses pretty powerful components. But the real differentiator is the special hinges which allow the touch screen to effortlessly be moved from upright down to a 20° sketching angle, to directly replace the paper-based drafting table so many of these creatives use every day with a superior digital alternative. Just like the Surface Book of last year, the industry is now starting to agree that Microsoft is at the forefront of designing the most powerful, innovative and (most importantly) beautiful hardware in the world. This is important, because not only does Microsoft make billions selling their Surface hardware, they are showing the highest-end design-conscious consumers that Apple is no longer the king of innovation. Which couldn’t have come at a worse time for Apple, because…
- Apple are starting to lag behind when it comes to innovation: Tim Cook has had a hard time replicating the innovation success of Steve Jobs. During his reign so far, the only truly new product offering they have come out with has been the Apple Watch, which so far has been a bit of a gimmick. [Interestingly, Stanford Professor Steve Blank mentioned Tim Cook as another Operations-focused CEO succeeding a visioinary]. The rest of the time, innovation has been relegated to incremental updates to their iPhone, iPad and Macbook lines, along with other copycat services like Apple Music and Apple TV. And don’t get me wrong, these products are still often amongst the most premium ones on the market, but this week Apple showed their first annual revenue decline in 15 years (even though they still made $9bn profit last quarter). Sales of iMacs, iPads and even iPhones are on a continued downward trajectory, as people aren’t seeing as much of a need to upgrade between versions as the innovations aren’t valuable enough. And then only one day after Microsoft’s event which garnered so much praise for its innovative ideas, Apple held its own hardware event where it showed off its new MacBook Pro laptops. And keeping with the last couple of iterations, the hardware was much the same with slight boosts to performance while making the machine as thin as possible, but the new “killer feature” is a small coloured touch screen above the keyboard (replacing the function keys) called the Touch Bar. Here, different frequently used commands and options will be displayed depending on the application being used.
The critical consensus of the new MacBook is that once again the hardware is wonderful, but that the new Touch Bar isn’t exactly bold new innovation. In fact, compared to the Microsoft event the day before, many critics are agreeing that Microsoft may have actually overtaken Apple as the most innovative maker of computers out there right now, with bolder new ideas which actually add value at the high-end.
It is no surprise that Microsoft is finally putting investment and effort to ignite not only the creativity of the people using their products, but the people behind the scenes making them as well. Satya Nadella has openly talked about how innovation and creativity will be vital to grow and compete in the coming years, and is now enabling that attitude amongst his people as well. It is no wonder that the upcoming update to Windows 10 is being called the “Creator’s Edition”.