Microsoft is a word synonymous with high-quality software. Its Windows line of operating systems and Office suite of applications are one of the most widely used software tools in history. So much so that this has made Microsoft the world’s largest software company by revenue and the third most valuable company in the world (trailing only Apple and Alphabet Inc.). It is estimated that, during its four-decades-long existence, the company has created three billionaires and more than 12,000 millionaires among its employees.
Founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen on April 4, 1975, Microsoft started as a humble company focused on developing and selling BASIC interpreters for the microcomputer Altair 8800 (hence the name, which is a portmanteau of “microcomputer” and “software”).
But it rose to prominence only few years later, when it released the popular MS-DOS, a command line operating system which grew to become one of the most successful operating systems ever developed mainly due to the fact that it originally came pre-installed on the revolutionary IBM PC. In 1985, in response to the Classic Mac OS and the growing interest in graphical user interface (GUI) operating systems, Microsoft released Windows – and forever changed the world.
Now, Mac OS preceded Windows by a year, but Windows won the OS wars because of its price, availability and compatibility: it was cheaper, easily obtainable and compatible with almost any device. Apple developed and sold its Mac OS exclusively for Apple-manufactured devices, which, then even more than now, were outrageously expensive.
Fast forward today and Windows accounts for nearly 90% of all the operating systems installed on desktop and laptop computers; in fact, Windows 7 by itself, is used by basically every second PC or laptop ever bought.
And then Windows 8 happened.
Possibly overconfident because of the unprecedented Windows 7 success, Microsoft decided to make a big departure from its trademark way of thinking about how operating systems should work and what makes a good user experience. Windows 7’s successor, Windows 8, was marketed as the OS which will revolutionize the way we interact with PCs. Instead, it turned out to be a huge flop, unfamiliar and confusing, difficult to learn when used with keyboard and a mouse.
The main reason why Windows 8 failed was the peculiar decision to replace the all-familiar and well-loved desktop with a dramatically altered start menu. If you could even call it a start menu in the first place! It was a tile-based screen, dubbed by Microsoft the new “Metro Interface”, but critiqued by almost everybody for taking up the whole screen and turning the good old PC into a flashy tablet. And if that wasn’t enough, the tiles linked to desktop apps, some of which were fully-fledged, but few half-baked as well.
A disaster, an absolute disaster! You open a browser and it goes full screen, android-style; but, the very next minute you open a media player, and it switches back to the traditional desktop based window app. Even die-hard Windows fans couldn’t cope with the drastic gap in the UI experience.
And then things got even worse. Two letters: WP.
It’s not like Microsoft didn’t try to popularize Windows Phone, its mobile OS. It even partnered with Nokia so that Windows Phone becomes Nokia’s primary OS, replacing Symbian. Hell, it even bought Nokia’s mobile division for 7.2 billion dollars! But it just didn’t work. Nobody wanted to buy Windows Phone devices.
Few things contributed to this, but the basic problem was very simple: a lot of low-quality apps, when they were any. Facebook and Twitter, for example, took ages to update their apps for WP, and Google straight out refused to spend resources to build apps for it.
It was a vicious cycle. People wouldn’t buy the phones because of the lack of apps and app developers wouldn’t make the apps because of the lack of users.
A year after buying Nokia, Microsoft cut about 8,000 jobs and wrote off 7.6 billion dollars from the deal, more than the amount paid for the mobile giant.
But, Microsoft wouldn’t have been Microsoft if it hadn’t learned a long time ago to utilize its mistakes for its own benefit. After the criticism directed towards Windows 8, Microsoft didn’t blame its users for not understanding it, but conceded defeat, and instead of further forcing this so-called interface revolution upon its customers, it reverted to its more familiar ways to please their needs.
“First off, if somebody is using a Windows PC, I’m super happy. I think that’s a great thing. They’re using it for a reason, and there’s a great experience that comes with it, and I think that’s important. – Panos Panay,Â Microsoft Devices Chief
Microsoft’s efforts to create a top-class desktop OS once again resulted in Windows 10, essentially a Windows 7 update implementing few of Windows 8’s strengths (albeit rare, existent nevertheless).
To avoid another Windows 8 (which, basically, became synonymous with “disaster”), Microsoft disclosed its Windows 10 plans early on, and immediately asked its prospective users to contribute with their ideas, anything from how they would like Windows 10 to look to which features they would like it to come prepacked with. To say the plan worked would be an understatement: over one million people signed up to be ”˜Windows Insiders’ and almost each of them gave continuous feedback on the OS’s design and functionality. And Microsoft listened attentively.
And to top that, it even decided to make Windows 10 cheap. How cheap? Well, during its first year of availability (so, until July 2016), you needed only a genuine license for an eligible Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 edition to obtain and install Windows 10. In other words: if you had used Windows before Windows 10, the new OS could be obtained at no charge. The same held true for all future updates. Windows 10 was announced as Windows’ ”˜last version’ with ongoing feature updates; in the future, a unified experience for all Windows users was promised to be guaranteed by long-term support and milestone updates (the latest, secure version) for everybody.
As of January 2016, Windows 10 is installed on 200 million devices, the fastest adoption rate in Windows history.
But, as we explained above, remaking the OS for PCs and laptops was only a part of the problem. What about Microsoft’s mobile operating system?
Well, to get back in the race, Microsoft made one simple, but important change, the one that helped Windows overthrow Mac OS: it simply made their most acclaimed software and applications available for every major mobile platform, namely iOS and Android.
“Our job is to ensure Microsoft will thrive in a mobile and cloud-first world.” Â – Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft
It all changed when Microsoft decided to release their most popular Office products – Word, PowerPoint and Excel – for iOS and Android, free of charge. Praises followed. Apple and Google featured these apps prominently in their app stores and millions of users downloaded them in the very first few weeks.
But, this was merely a beginning. Making another step in the right direction, Microsoft decided to buy a large number of well-known app companies and start-ups and started developing them and/or integrating their features within their own similar apps:
In June 2016, Microsoft made a giant leap forward, acquiring the most acclaimed business-oriented social network, LinkedIn, for an astounding sum of 26.2 billion dollars.
Microsoft is going back to its roots: instead of forcing users to come to them, Microsoft is reaching to get to its users. Google’s already doing this for years: all of its major services are available on all major platforms. And even Apple may have changed its mind if their 2016 WWDC keynote – which was all about them opening up to developers and users – is something to guide ourselves by.
Microsoft, however, has one great advantage: it is the most popular, and maybe the best software maker in the world. And it is omnipresent: their Windows OS is the most dominant PC OS, their Office Suite is the ultimate productivity app, and Microsoft’s Xbox is the second most popular gaming console.
The vast majority of smartphones (over 70%) use Android and Microsoft’s WP is no competitor there. (After all, it’s a whole different world.) However, judging by its friendlier way of communicating with its final users and aggressive way of managing business with its competitors, not to mention its ability to conquer new spheres of influence, instead of winning one battle, Microsoft might just win the whole war.
In fact, it’s been winning for a while now.
 In April 2017, it was announced that Microsoft will shut down Wunderlist in favor of a new multi-platform app featuring direct integration with Office 365, To-Do. (April 2017)