For a while now, it's been rumored that Microsoft was planning a massive internal restructuring that would turn it into a devices and services company. What that means is that Microsoft would be more like Apple in that it creates hardware to deliver its services to consumers. In a memo released today detailing said restructuring, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave some hints as to what his company's future hardware would look like.
Near the beginning of the memo, Ballmer says that the future will be defined by Windows devices that power work and play. He also gives some examples as to what those devices might look like:
Building upon Windows, Xbox and our growing suite of consumer and enterprise services, we will design, create and deliver through us and through third parties a complete family of Windows-powered devices — devices that can help people just as much in their work life as they do after hours. Devices that help people do more and play harder.
We will strive for a single experience for everything in a person’s life that matters. One experience, one company, one set of learnings, one set of apps, and one personal library of entertainment, photos and information everywhere. One store for everything. Microsoft has the clear opportunity to offer consumers a unified experience across all aspects of their life, whether the screen is a small wearable, a phone, a tablet, an 85-inch display or other screens and devices we have not yet even imagined.
Did Ballmer just say that Microsoft is working on a smart watch? He said "small wearable," but that pretty much means smart watch. Of course, he could also be referring to something like Google Glass, but current rumors suggest Microsoft is going to take another stab at the smart watch market again in the near future.
Just as an aside, I would like to see what Ballmer is thinking by referencing an 85-inch display. Does that mean the company wants to get into the smart TV market? The Xbox One will kind of turn TVs into smart TVs, but I wouldn't be surprised if the company introduced an Xbox branded set-top box that brought a Windows 8 flair to the television.
The idea of work and play is brought up again later on as Ballmer says that "no technology company has as yet delivered a definitive family of devices useful all day for work and for play." To that end, he says that Microsoft will combine "software, services and hardware to bring the consumer this new, more complete and enveloping experience."
So, how is Microsoft going to merge fun and play through its devices? Ballmer says it's all about variety:
Our family will include a full spectrum of both partner and first-party devices. We believe we need all of these categories to drive innovation, fulfill market desire for diversity of experience, and achieve volume.
Our family will include phones, tablets, PCs, 2-in-1s, TV-attached devices and other devices to be imagined and developed. No other company has such strength across so many categories today, and yet this strength is essential to being relevant and personal throughout people’s lives. Our devices must share a common user-interface approach tailored to each hardware form factor. They must deliver experiences based on a common set of services such as the same account login or a common understanding of people and their relationships. They need to share the same services infrastructure so that the information an individual has shared on one device can be available and carry across all the devices in the family. Our devices must support the same high-value activities in ways that are meaningful across different device types. Developers must be able to target all our devices with a common programming model that makes it easy to target more than one device.
By far, the most interesting concept here is the idea that the future of Windows is a common kernel for developers to target all devices with one build. The company already made development between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 easier by sharing the kernel between the two, and it will be doing something similar by allowing developers to build Windows applications for the Xbox One. It sounds like Microsoft would like to take this further by making it possible to build an application for Windows 8, and that app will run on Windows Phone 8 and Xbox One without any further work.
Ballmer sums up his aspirations perfectly when he says that Microsoft "will develop the only ecosystem that promotes variety in hardware but coherence in the user experience." In other words, it won't matter what hardware you use in the future as long as it has Windows. From there, Microsoft will take care of everything else.
If this all seems kind of familiar to you, you're not alone. Microsoft is obviously taking the Apple approach to hardware going forward, but it has the potential to be so much more. If Ballmer and company can pull this off, Windows could once again be synonymous with computing. It could also horribly backfire as Ballmer's plan is contingent upon consumers buying nothing but Windows devices. Convincing people to own nothing but Windows products is going to be hard part; but once they do, it could be a game changer for consumers and developers.