Stuffy, boring, insular. These are three adjectives that have been used to describe the Microsoft of yesteryear. But that Microsoft is gone. They’ve changed. Radically.
Microsoft now produces interesting, innovative products. Products you probably want to use. They’ve entered interesting, cutting edge new fields, like the Internet of Things. Perhaps most interestingly, they’re producing software for their old adversaries, Apple and the Linux community.
In particular, the frosty relationship between Microsoft and users of Apple’s products has thawed, and in the past year, they’ve launched a number of significant and beautiful products for the Mac and the iPhone. Here are five of the most significant, and why this matters.
Launched towards the end of 2014, Microsoft Xim makes it easy to show your friends your photos, without huddling around the same, four-inch screen.
Given the stratospheric rise of Instagram and Snapchat — and the enduring popularity of Flickr — it makes sense that Microsoft would want to launch their own photo sharing service. Although curiously, Xim wasn’t launched under the Microsoft brand. The only other Microsoft app launched in such a manner was Sway; a media editing app.
Xim was designed by the FUSE team within Microsoft Research, who specialize in building innovative consumer technology products, with a focus on media-rich applications. FUSE are also well known for their analogue, Android Wear keyboard, and So.cl, a social networking search engine.
Visual Studio Code
Microsoft Visual Studio is an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) used to build Windows applications, and web applications using Microsoft’s family of web technologies. Since it first launched in 1997, Visual Studio has built a die-hard user base of developers, many of whom insist it makes them more productive and efficient at work. It is regarded among the very best in developer environments.
Visual Studio’s killer app is Intellisense; a highly sophisticated code completion tool that can anticipate what a developer is about to write, and write it for them.
But Visual Studio has never made the jump from Windows, despite the protests from developers in the Apple camp. That is, until now. At the Microsoft Build 2015 conference, held last month in San Francisco, Apple announced Visual Studio Code.
Available to download for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, Visual Studio Code is Microsoft’s first foray into the world of non-Windows developer tools. With it developers can build websites using node.js, as well as Microsoft’s own ASP.Net framework. It also allows developers to build applications for Azure; Microsoft’s cloud computing platform.
Interestingly, Visual Studio Code is built on top of two pieces of open source software; Github’s Atom Editor, and Google’s Chromium web browser engine.
Microsoft Office 2016 for Mac
Okay, I’m cheating here.
Microsoft has produced versions of Office for Mac since the late eighties. But they’ve always felt like an afterthought, that lacked the polish and finesse of their Windows siblings. Indeed, they’ve never quite reached the polished standard set by Apple’s iWork suite, on the OS X platform at least.
Office 2016 for Mac is perhaps the most significant revamp to the suite. Gone is the much-loathed Ribbon. It now feels like a crafted, native Mac application, rather than a hastily-made Windows port. And it’s a good job — the last version of Office for Mac is dated 2011.
It finally feels like Microsoft is taking the Mac world seriously.
The .NET framework is something that is often taken for granted. It runs in the background of Windows computers, chugging away silently and imperceptibly. But despite its lack of visibility, it does a crucial job.
The framework powers a startling number of Windows applications. These run on the Common Language Runtime — a highly optimized virtual machine — and are built using the Framework Class Library, which provides the basic building blocks for developers to make Windows applications.
This was recently ported to OS X and Linux, and has been licensed with a permissive, open source license.
Of course, there has been an open-source version of the .Net framework for Mac and Linux. The Mono Project has allowed Mac users to build C#, VB.Net and F# applications for a long time already, but there has never been feature parity. Until now.
Office Lens is a popular Windows Phone that lets users scan documents, business cards, whiteboards, and turn them into electronic files that can be shared over email, and uploaded to the cloud. It does this through the same Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology that powers Microsoft OneNote.
Bonus: Run Android and iOS Apps on Windows 10
As a bonus, Microsoft is about to make it vastly simpler for developers to port their Android and iOS apps to Windows 10. These will be able to run on the desktop and on the mobile, since Windows 10 is a “One OS to Rule Them All” kind of affair.
The steps taken to port Android and iOS apps differ wildly. Android apps run in a self-contained, simulated environment, while iOS apps written in Objective-C are natively built for Windows 10, giving them a more coherent experience.
The Android porting system, codenamed Project Astoria, and the iOS porting system, codenamed Project Islandwood, are yet to be publicly released. But there have been some demonstrations behind closed doors.
The first cross-compiled Windows Phone app has already been released. The Windows 10 port of Candy Crush Saga was built with an early version of Project Islandwood, with the code based upon the iOS app and will come pre-installed as a bundled game.
Why This Matters
To say that Microsoft has historically been seen as an anti-competitive bully is gross understatement.
Over the years, they’ve been accused more than once of enforcing an unbreakable homogeny, and of elbowing competitors out of the market. Their recent corporate history is filled with lawsuits brought by the governments of Europe and the United States, concerned about their immense domination over the computer market.
But in recent years, Microsoft has seen its position as the dominant power in the technology world challenged.
Since the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and Android in 2008, they’ve seen their dominance of the smartphone market disintegrate. Windows Mobile, which at one point represented a huge chunk of all smartphones sold, has effectively been killed off, and its successor in Windows Phone hasn’t come close to the adoption seen by Android and iOS.
Similarly, their control of the browser market has virtually evaporated in the face of stiff competition from Google Chrome and Firefox.
Microsoft know they can no longer rest on their laurels and their deeply entrenched position. They’ve had to radically and fundamentally reimagine themselves as a company. To their credit, they’ve done that and more.
They’ve started launching products people actually want to use — like Windows 10 — and have seemingly learned the painful lessons from Vista and Windows 8. Microsoft is also set to launch a swathe of products people never knew they wanted, but are actually deeply compelling. Stuff like the impossibly futuristic Hololens, which is one of the most sophisticated augmented reality systems, and can display three-dimensional holograms in your field of vision. Stuff like Windows 10 for the Internet of Things, which makes it simpler to build rich, Arduino-powered robotics systems.
Crucially, they need to bring back the people who ‘jumped ship’ to Linux and Mac OS X.
Perhaps the best way to make die-hard Mac and Linux users reconsider their stance on Windows is by drip-feeding them Microsoft software they’d want to use.
Why Stop There?
Personally, I’m thrilled Microsoft is engaging with the Mac and Linux world. But why stop at Visual Studio and the .NET framework? Why not Cortana, which by all accounts, gives Apple’s Siri a run for its money. Why not Microsoft Edge; their tantalizing new replacement to Internet Explorer?
What would you like to see Microsoft bring to the Mac? Let me know in the comments below.