At last, Microsoft may have copied Apple properly

Okay, I apologize for the shameful, troll-bait headline. I realize it's easy to misinterpret, so let me qualify with a statement:

Microsoft didn't get where it is by making bad products.

I'm quite sure of that. Windows has its flaws, of course it does, but so far, it's fulfilled the needs of the consumer market better than the alternatives. Word, Excel, Outlook, and the rest of the Office cabal are popular for the same reason in the buttoned-down business world. The Xbox 360 may be infamous for red-ring-of-death failures and loud college frat parties, but it's arguably the best current-gen console around, thanks to a combination of good, affordable hardware, great software, and excellent online services.

I'll admit that Microsoft also employed a heavy dose of ruthless, aggressive business practices. The company mercilessly choked and outmaneuvered older and less agile competitors into oblivion. That's why Netscape doesn't exist anymore, and it's why Apple almost went bankrupt in the 1990s. However, those tactics would have made little difference if Microsoft products had no merit. They did, and they still do.

The real problem with Microsoft, the issue that's taken the company so long to address, is not lack of ability or talent. It was perhaps best summed up by Steve Jobs in a TV interview many years ago:

They just have no taste . . . They don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their product.

Call that an unfair generalization all you want, but I think it's right on the money. I think Microsoft products have always felt like bizarro versions of other, pre-existing offerings. Windows 95 was a bizarro version of Apple's Mac operating system at the time. The Zune was unquestionably a bizarro iPod. The Xbox was a bizarro PlayStation 2 with better software and online multiplayer. And Bing Maps is a bizarro version of Google Maps—don't you deny it.

Microsoft has always had a wealth of perfectly decent products, but it's never had a grand, unified vision for it all. Microsoft has always felt like a collection of parts assembled into something that kind of resembles a whole, but also kind of doesn't. Take the Zune and the Xbox, for example. With almost nothing in common, either functionally or aesthetically, they may as well have been designed by two different companies. The same goes for Office and Windows. With its weird stylistic eccentricities, Office has, for the past few versions, looked and behaved slightly unlike the rest of the Windows operating system, as if it were made by a different firm that didn't quite follow Microsoft's UI guidelines.

Now look at Apple's portfolio. Compare the Zune and the Xbox to Apple's rounded rectangles, brushed aluminum, and candy-coated icons. When you see an Apple product or hold one in your hand, you can tell it passed through Jonathan Ive's design studio. The design language makes it abundantly clear, and the iconic, self-assured bitten-apple logo drives it home. That's the kind of thing that begets more than consumer loyalty; it begets the fanatical devotion Apple has engendered among its fans.

But you know what?

I think Microsoft is moving in the same direction. I think a light bulb finally went off in someone's head somewhere in Redmond, Washington, and I think that's why we've seen the company slowly coalesce around Metro and a new, unified culture that's both visible and palpable. This past Monday's Surface tablet launch event was perhaps the clearest manifestation so far. Rather than one of its traditionally plodding, over-long press conferences, Microsoft delivered something with the crisp, polished vibe of an Apple keynote. It didn't just show the product; it made me want the product.

What you see above is what I think of as the new Microsoft. You see clean lines, bright colors, consistent typography, and a bold, entrepreneurial aura that a corporate juggernaut like Microsoft shouldn't generate, yet somehow does. You see Metro, which looks unique and effective and not like a bizarro anything. You see passion and excitement for good hardware and good software, and for combining the two into something desirable. Steve Ballmer will never have the charisma or talent for communication that Steve Jobs did, but strangely, that doesn't seem to matter. I still get a clear sense of what Microsoft is trying to be and what it's trying to achieve. And I'm excited.

We're not only seeing coalescence around design, either. As Microsoft made patently clear in another keynote on Wednesday, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 are going to share the same software foundation and the same APIs. Without much work, apparently, Windows developers will be able to get their PC apps running on phones, and vice versa. Imagine that: whether with a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone, you'll be running essentially the same OS with the same interface, and you'll have access to essentially the same apps. That's a level of integration unheard of in Microsoft's history.

Then there's that other piece of the puzzle: the hardware. The Surface is the first Microsoft PC built from the ground up, with software and hardware both designed in-house. You might say the Xbox deserves that distinction, but the Xbox wasn't a full-featured Windows PC; the Surface, especially in its x86 incarnation, absolutely is. Word from the rumor mill (via Bloomberg) now suggests Microsoft is working on its own Windows Phone 8 smartphone, as well. It seems the new Microsoft has learned that, to achieve the best pairings of software and hardware, a company must control both ingredients in the recipe.

But most of all, I think Microsoft may have finally copied Apple's greatest innovation. After spending decades pilfering ideas from Apple products, Microsoft may have distilled the spark, the singular mindset that brought those products into the world and made them great. The new Microsoft is more than the sum of its parts. The new Microsoft has, dare I say it, a soul.

I don't know if this is a fluke or merely the sign of things to come. I hope it's the latter, though. I hope the Microsoft of tomorrow won't need to ape others, because its own people will be leading the way. I hope Microsoft will refine and perfect Metro and eventually scrap it and replace it with something even better, because sacrifices in the name of innovation are sacrifices worth making. Lastly, I hope other companies will look at Microsoft and see that they, too, can be bold and innovative and uncompromising—and that they, too, can lead by example instead of following.

Because that's how you make truly great products.

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