Microsoft: A platform company

Matt Alexander is the owner and editor of, a writer, a technology enthusiast and a contributing writer for The Loop.

When Google released its iOS Gmail app, I argued that it was a woefully missed opportunity for the software giant. With Gmail for iOS, Google had a unique chance to impress iOS users with a well-designed app for a widely used service. Instead, as we all know, Google released a pathetic implementation reliant on UIWebView, and squandered a phenomenal Trojan Horse moment.

In stark contrast to Google’s well-publicized folly, Microsoft is doing everything it can to impress iOS users.

In the past few weeks alone, the folks in Redmond have released an Xbox companion app, an HTML5 demonstration of Windows Phone 7, Kinectimals, and a number of Office-related apps for iOS.

The unifying theme between all of these apps? Well, frankly, they’re all fairly well done.

Accordingly, the chatter amongst bloggers about Microsoft is growing. Posts about the impressive Nokia Lumia 800, the HTML5 demonstration of Windows Phone, and the growing number of well-executed iOS apps are not uncommon. When watching The Verge’s talk show, On The Verge, John Gruber even indicates that Windows 8’s Metro UI implementation looks interesting.

I have criticized Microsoft rather heavily in recent weeks (particularly following CNET’s coverage of the the Courier’s demise) but I cannot help but feel somewhat positive about the company’s prospects today. Renewing its focus on its existence as a platform company, Microsoft is embracing alternate platforms, allowing its unique Windows Phone 7 platform to blossom unhindered, and is somewhat ahead of the curve in terms of its media implementation with the Xbox 360.

Honestly, I’m cautiously impressed.

Rather than pushing poor products, Microsoft seems to be aware of its status as the underdog in the mobile operating system arena, and is acting accordingly. Scrappy attempts to chip away at competing platforms? Well, that just doesn’t seem representative of the modern Microsoft. That is the behavior of a humble, young, and reactionary company — the Microsoft of the early 90s.

Of course, Microsoft still has a propensity for utter foolishness, thus rendering this current streak of positivity as being somewhat tenuous. With Ballmer at the helm, even the most impressive idea out of Microsoft seems volatile and at risk of dramatic collapse. Even so, I find myself quietly rooting for Microsoft at the moment. Just as I romantically rooted for webOS, I want the well-designed underdog to gain traction and support.

The latest versions of Android strike me as uninspired and third party implementations are incessantly flawed. Even Google’s own products on competing platforms are half-baked and careless. But Microsoft’s efforts are different.

Rather than resting on its laurels, Microsoft appears to be taking an uncharacteristically humble path, and is doing what it can to redeem its image and to gain support. That is an admirable endeavor, particularly when you consider the company in question. I never thought I’d see the day, but in his interview with The Verge last week, Paul Thurrott had something remarkably apt to say about his beloved Microsoft:

At its heart, Microsoft is a platforms company, not an OS company. So even if Windows fell by the wayside–which I don’t see happening–the company still has some stunning platforms to push forward, including Office–which should be ported to the iPad, Android, and any other popular OS, the Xbox, and of course its various cloud initiatives. What Microsoft needs is to recapture the sense of constant fear that characterized its early days. It’s gotten too comfortable.

Any progress could easily collapse, but for now, I’m cautiously optimistic. Microsoft used to be a reactionary competitor, but has recently relied all too heavily on its enterprise dominance. Seeing the Redmond giant take a step back, swallow its pride, and produce some forward-thinking products? That’s certainly a good way to regain some support from even their most staunch opposition.

I’m certainly not going to up and leave OS X any time soon, but at least knowing creative competition for Apple exists gives me confidence that innovation can, and will, continue in the industry. Whether you agree or not, I’d argue that even Apple can use some competition.