Mobile tech is not the cut-down experience it used to be. Larger screens, faster wireless connections and modern processors are allowing us to live the dream of carrying a full computer in our pockets and doing everything we want to do without being tied to a desk and chair. A new frontier is opening up and it’s clear now that the devices we carry with us have very few ties to the past. Where we used to imagine magically shrunken PCs in our pocket, we now have entirely new devices in all shapes and sizes.
That doesn’t sit well with any of today’s tech superpowers, including hardware manufacturers, software vendors and online service providers. It’s exactly the kind of disruption that could render any of today’s biggest names irrelevant. When it comes to delivering everything a consumer wants and expects today, very few companies can deliver something unique.
Surprisingly, the company with possibly the most to gain out of this situation is Microsoft. Often accused of missing trends and refusing to innovate, Microsoft has shaken off pretty much all of its old habits and is risking everything to make sure Windows is the only environment you use on a desktop PC, laptop, tablet or phone. That goal is actually in sight for the first time—a few hiccups aside—and the company is throwing all its weight behind achieving it. You can actually run at least one version of Windows on each of these device types and you’ll have nearly the same interface and the same experience across all of them. Furthermore, your Microsoft ID and SkyDrive account are actually visible and useful here, keeping your files and preferences synced across devices. The first time I used the Office 2013 preview I was extremely hesitant about it saving all files to SkyDrive and honestly couldn’t see why the company would confuse its users by setting this as the default behaviour. After seeing Office on Windows Phone 8 and the web apps that run on any PC, I’m completely sold on the prospect of being able to open anything I’m working on from anywhere, whether I started on it at my desk, at home, or on a bus. The line between our separate work and personal lives has become even more permeable.
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There isn’t much in the way of serious competition. Hardware manufacturers who have only built standard Windows desktops and laptops so far can really only follow someone else’s script now. Many of them have dabbled with software tools and partnerships with cloud services, but these remain crude at best. The probability of today’s major PC vendors being able to do anything other than bundle other vendors’ software and services is extremely low, as is the chance of someone entirely new popping up out of nowhere.
Google and Apple have the next best chances of owning the entire ecosystem around the tech we use, but both have their weaknesses. Apple set the standard for hardware and software designed to work with each other, but iCloud is nowhere near as smooth as it needs to be and the company doesn’t seem to know which way to look. Google has top-class web services and decent software but has never been in the hardware game and lacks a consistent vision. Microsoft, on the other hand, has jumped into hardware even at the cost of destroying all the partnerships it has built up over the past 20 years, and it seems to know exactly what it’s doing.
Microsoft is the only company in the world right now capable of delivering fully integrated hardware, software and online services across personal computing devices of all shapes, sizes, functions and capabilities. The online services have been revamped, the hardware has been launched and the software has been released. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any weaknesses to the plan—others still make extremely desirable devices and not everyone wants to abandon their current ways of managing their digital lives. But with a new purpose clearly laid out in front of it, Microsoft could very easily reinvent not only itself, but personal technology as a whole.