Microsoft's obsession with Windows is ending, and I couldn't be happier

Commentary: It’s all about AI and the web now.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
5 min read

A little over two and a half hours into Microsoft's Build conference this week in Seattle, I tuned out the live coding session, taking place on stage in a downtown convention center crammed with 6,000 software developers, and started playing a game in my head.

It was sort of like Where's Waldo. Except I was thinking "Where's Windows?"

According to my AI-created transcript of Microsoft's three-and-a-half hour opening keynote on Monday (which I sat through -- all of it), the word "Windows" was mentioned just a little more than a dozen times. And even then, it wasn't to extol the virtues of the monopoly-making software that powers nearly nine out of 10 PCs around the world. Instead, it was typically in relation to calling people "Windows developers," or describing how Microsoft's coding tools work across "Windows" PCs, Apple Macs and Linux-powered computers.

It was even worse for "PC." That term came up a whopping seven times, and usually only in passing. "It works on my Windows PC," "You're working on a PC" and so on.

The PC, and the Windows software that powers it, came across as mere window dressing (sorry).

For anyone who's followed the tech industry over the past couple of decades, Windows sitting on the sidelines at the developer conference of the company that made billions off of it speaks to the fact that we -- you, me, the tech industry at large -- just don't care about computers like we used to. Or tablets . Or most smartphones , even.

What we do care about is AI and the web. Or we will very soon.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella knows this. Microsoft declined to make him available for an interview, but I'm guessing that's why he and his team pitched themselves as the company whose stuff you use no matter what device you have. They see Microsoft as one of the key AI and web companies of the future. A company that will touch your life, whether you know it or not.


Satya Nadella sees a world beyond devices.

Getty Images

"The world is becoming a computer," Nadella said during his opening speech. "Computing is getting embedded in every person, place and thing. Every walk of life -- in our homes, in our cars, in our work, in our stadiums, in our entertainment centers; in every industry from precision agriculture to precision medicine; from autonomous cars to autonomous drones ; from personalized retail to personalized banking -- are all being transformed."

And in this new age, the tech in your pocket and on your desk just doesn't matter as much anymore. Everything else is the new hotness.

And it's pushed Microsoft to make more of its technology available to everyone.

"We're finally being freed from dependence on specific devices," said Bob O'Donnell, founder and chief analyst of Technalysis Research, who's been tracking tech trends and the PC industry for two decades. "Hardware's important, but it's become a tool through which we experience these services."

So you're welcome everyone. A decade after Apple blanketed the the airwaves with those Mac vs. PC ads lampooning Windows as a well-meaning but inept and insecure technology, and after Microsoft responded with a series of ads about how awesome PCs actually are, the war over devices has come to a stalemate.

Now Microsoft's beginning to spread innovations across the tech industry, like its Timeline feature that helps you keep track of apps you used, documents you wrote and websites you visited, no matter what device you were using.

We're all benefiting, regardless of whether we have an Apple iPad , Google Android-powered phone or an Alienware PC.

This is good for the industry. In the end, we're all going to win.

A big shift 

Microsoft Surface Book 2
Enlarge Image
Microsoft Surface Book 2

It used to be that to Microsoft, the world revolved around Windows.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The difference in tone from the tech industry over the past year has been startling. And I don't just mean how political everything's gotten in the Trump era.

Just consider what the tech industry was excited about a decade ago. Life was dominated by accessories, programs, games and chips. New versions of Windows were celebrated at big, dramatic rollouts. Microsoft and its partners would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ad campaigns and funding dramatic stunts like acrobats making a human billboard outside a building in New York.

That made some sense, since Windows runs the vast majority of the world's PCs -- we're talking hundreds of millions of devices. Each new feature was a chance to convince you to upgrade.

The approach continued until even just a year ago, when Microsoft was showing off an app to remix your photos and videos using a -- say it with me! -- PC powered by Windows.

Times change, though, and now it's all about the promise of AI, apps and services that work across devices.

By the way, Nadella isn't the only one who gets how important AI is.

In the past two weeks, Facebook and Google also positioned themselves as masters of AI and as innovators bringing new ideas to the web.

Google demoed an AI-powered virtual assistant that sounds uncannily human as it calls a restaurant and reserves you a table. Facebook showed how it's using AI to weed out bad behavior on Instagram, while also scanning all your photos to reproduce a virtual version of your childhood home.

And Microsoft, which repositioned its own assistant, Cortana, presented a world in which AI helps make devices easier to use for people with disabilities.

The new features Google, Facebook and Microsoft showcased worked so well on any device that no one made more than a passing reference to what computer or phone was on stage.

I'm a Mac, you're a PC. Who cares?

It's important to remember what type of company Microsoft is. Windows, and the Office productivity software that runs on it, has been the backbone of Microsoft's empire for decades. Windows' dominance of the PC industry is what led a judge to declare Microsoft a monopoly. Until a few years ago, nearly everything the company did was somehow tied to Windows.

Now, as the PC's popularity wanes and phones have taken over, Microsoft's pushed hard into AI and the web, making itself the company whose stuff you use no matter what device you have.

Of course, Windows is still a big business, but, again, this is a serious shift in approach.

"Everything they presented on stage was you not leaving their world, but being able to do it on any device you want to," said Maribel Lopez, founder of Lopez Research, who consults with some of the world's largest tech companies.

In other words, what device you have has little bearing on the things it can do. Now it's about aesthetics and specialized apps you might use. But for the most part, the tech world will act the same no matter what hardware you have.


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