The Resurgence of Microsoft
For a company founded in 1987, Microsoft has had quite a tumultuous history. Everything from justice issues, to the rise and fall of various competitors. The unfortunate benefit of defeating all of you rivals if you become complacent in respect to your customers. When Windows 95 came out, it was revolutionary (in the eyes of the consumer) for the time, however since then there has been nothing major to come out from the company in years. Except for recently. Any veteran of the tech world for the last 5-10 years can remember Steve Ballmer's rant of Developers, Developers, Developers, and he was right. As much as it pains me to use the word, but its recent ecosystem/brands XBox, Zune, Windows, Windows Mobile, XNA, Silverlight, have all come together to create some very compelling products. Even though Microsoft still cannot market their way out of their past, they are back to their nature of being on the cutting edge.
The Zune HD has been nearly overlooked by the consumer community as a whole due to a certain (i) device. However it is a better product in my mind because it concentrates on being a media player instead of a do it all device. Doing this enables it to be a superior media player. The interface is a complete break from anything to come out from anyone in the past and is extremely intuitive to use. The screen is beautiful being that it is a AMOLED based panel. There are two buttons, however the accuracy of the capacitive touchsreen, there is no need for more. The Zune marketplace is amazing in the fact that you can preview and purchase (if you live in the US) any song directly from the internet without using a computer at all! The simplicity of this system needs to be used to be believed. It has a fully functional (minus Flash for now) browser with a superior touchscreen keyboard to anything the (i) company as came out with.
XBox, in particular the Live system is the only platform that can tear a hardened PC gamer from his PC to use. The simplicity of selecting a friend and joining an in progress game is mind boggling. The system may have had its share of issues in the first rev of its systemboard (RROD being an example of this), the Live system redeems this and more. With the upcoming formfactor change, and the semi recent introduction of the Jasper board revision I believe/hope that the RROD problem has been resolved. The games being released for the XBox and the XBox arcade (area for indie devlopers and older games to be released for cheap) are another compelling reason to get on the XBox train. Now that the original XBox has been completely removed from LIVE, there is no telling where Microsoft will take the platform. The XBox is not just a gaming system, but can also act as the primary distribution hub for all of your media when connected to a dedicated server that serves DLNA compatible media. This includes most DIVX compatible movies, and MP3's/WMA's of different kinds. They can all be output at full resolution over the HDMI cable. You can also download music and movies using the aforementioned Zune marketplace and share them with your Zune account. You can also connect your Zune directly to the XBox and use it for ingame music (with games that support this feature, luckily most do)
The Windows platform has usually been rather reliable and user friendly, minus some hiccups (ME for example), but Windows 7 in particular represents the pinnacle of their user interface design while still maintaining legacy compatibility. This is an area where Microsoft needs to tread very carefully. They think they cannot alienate their enterprise customers, and they cannot alienate their consumers, or they risk losing them to competitors. However I think their viewpoint is flawed. If they were to completely give their user interface a once over, and let consumers decide whose UI is superior and easier to use, this would be a winning move. Their competitor has dropped legacy compatibility in the past and people still buy their products, so the concept can work. People adapt, and buy a superior product anyways. Luckily Microsoft is doing this 180° with their Windows Phone 7 design and using the revolutionary UI from the Zune HD to support their efforts. People are already taking notice.
An article about the recent history of Microsoft cannot go without mentioning Office 2007. After just completing a rollout for an enterprise level company, I can say that the transition from the menu based system of previous versions, to the icon based UI of O2k7 was rather difficult. This is a trial by fire for Microsoft for standardizing and changing UI's to be cutting edge. Your enterprises will fall in line. Custom applications will be remade for new technology, and it gives companies a chance/excuse to clean out unneeded plugins. The Ribbon as it is called, looks like it is Microsoft's new design language and is hinted at in the Windows 7 UI. Even a simple program like Paint has been reskinned with it. After using these productivity apps for more than a couple months, I think their UI has made things more efficient and other software companies will take notice and redesigned their 20 year old UI. The File, Edit, View menu is a holdover from the ancient Xerox PARC UI from which Apple and Microsoft copied to make their operating systems. It has been time for a change for some time. I am impressed with Microsoft's ability to shake it earlier than Apple has. Even though Apple wants everyone to look at their Object based dock for navigation, their legacy toolbar is ever present on top and will be for a very long time. It hasn't changed since the first Apple PC's. Since Apple is attempting to create a software as a service model for most of their stuff (iTunes, iPad) etc, I think they will move away from open PC's and Laptops completely.
Apple has recently announced and launched the iPad, and I believe this is a clear move that they are attempting to leave their current Desktop/Laptop based ecosystem. There is more money in the Software as a Service model, and it allows content providers unhinged access to everyone with an iTunes store account. As much as Apple has been lauded in the past for amalgamating existing technologies to create their products, I believe the iPad is their first recent misstep. They are forgetting the human element. Humans in general are lazy and want immediate access to content, which a device completely dependent on the cloud and is primarily media content based cannot offer. However, the Courier being a content creation device is immune to this effect.
During the last couple years, they have come out with some really revolutionary products, Surface, their first crack at creating a tablet standard Origami and most recently, Courier. The problem with all of these concepts is they cannot market them at all, or they leave the marketing to the OEM's. Surface just fizzled out due to mass expense (10k), and 3rd parties could not make up their mind around their tablet concept. The recent change is Microsoft has taken over hardware design and are thus a competitor to OEM's. Standardized hardware is a benefit in the mobile world as it allows developers (developers, developers) ONE standard to work around and create a superior product. The first Zune was a rebranded Toshiba Gigabeat mp3 player, and failed to gain much market significance. The 2nd revision was still a Toshiba device, but designed primarily by Microsoft and marketed at a ok level. However with their recent devices, Courier, Zune HD, etc, they have went all out and helmed every level of the path to market including the design process, branding, hardware, etc. They are at risk of alienating their OEM's (Dell, HP, Lenovo) however it is making the OEM's attempt to stand out on their own. An example of this is the upcoming HP Slate. This is a fully fledged tablet that runs a full version of Windows 7 specifically tailored by HP. Competition for innovation in the tech world is an amazing thing.