Microsoft (MSFT) once had a lock on attention from computer users and the press. But now, after falling far behind in smartphone and tablet use and blundering a number of its Windows version introductions, the company is often a second thought. Meanwhile, Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) are guaranteed topics in discussions on the future of computing.
With its expanded introduction to Windows 10 today, Microsoft continues a line of attack started under previous CEO Steve Ballmer and continued under his successor, Satya Nadella, to transform the company and once again become an important force in the minds of businesses and consumers.
However, while there are some interesting features in Windows 10 (the company skipped 9 in a bid to separate itself from the criticisms over Windows 8 and 8.1), it's unclear whether Microsoft will be able to make the case it badly needs to.
The most important underlying thrust of the event was the integration of Microsoft's family of products. Developers will be able to write one application and have it run across PCs, the Xbox gaming console, Windows Phone, and Windows-based tablets. If it works as advertised -- and this has been something Microsoft has tried to move to over a period of decades -- such a level of compatibility would offer some tremendous advantages. Independent software developers could reach multiple markets at the same time. Corporate IT departments could reduce the workload in creating custom applications.
Users would also benefit in productivity, being able to not just have applications work the same way on devices, but enjoy the ability to start something on one platform and continue it on another. According to the demonstration, versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will be included in Windows for phones and tablets. Many apps, like Calendar and Photos, will look and act the same.
Plus, for many the upgrade will be free.
However, this is an enabling strategy, whether for lowering maintenance and development costs for companies or increasing convenience for people. The approach makes it easier to reach people who want to use multiple platforms, but doesn't necessarily do anything to expand the base of customers.
What Apple and Google have realized for years, and what has made their rapid advance in the computing industry possible, is that people don't buy on strict rationality. They buy at least in part on emotion, whether for their own use or for business use. They want the cool devices that their peers accept and expect.
Microsoft still seems intrinsically wed to the idea of providing the rational reason to buy its products. At least in this critical event, it wants to prove to consumers that they should want Windows-based devices. This is the soft version of saying, "I told you so."
Although businesses would seem more in line with the rational pitch, workers are consumers, and that's why Apple and Google have made such strides with selling smartphones and tablets to corporations. The use starts with executives who insist that IT departments find ways to support their preferred toys. Once in place, the doors are open and the devices keep moving in.
Unless Microsoft can find a way to make people care emotionally, not just intellectually, its bid for relevance is likely to continue as a form of frustration for the company.