I didn’t expect to get excited about anything Microsoft announced at its Build conference on Wednesday, but the company more than exceeded my expectations with several announcements that show it’s going in the right direction.
Let’s start with Start. Or more specifically, let’s start with Microsoft’s decision to at long last bring back the dearly departed Start menu with its first free update to Windows 8.1. This is obviously a great decision on Microsoft’s part since the lack of the Start menu was one of the biggest complaints that many desktop PC users had about Windows 8 and its return shows that Microsoft is listening to its customers. In doing this, Microsoft smartly ignored the Windows 8 cultists who sneeringly called everyone who missed the Start menu “stupid” or a “whiner” and realized that if a huge chunk of its customers are rejecting the changes it made with Windows 8 then it needed to change course.
Second, Microsoft eliminated a huge barrier to getting manufacturers to make Windows smartphones and tablets: It made Windows free to use for devices of 9 inches or smaller. There was simply no way that Microsoft stood a shot at competing with Android as long as it charged manufacturers licensing fees to make devices and Microsoft’s decision to give up on collecting royalties from smartphones and small tablets will go a long way toward growing its market share.
Finally — and most importantly — Microsoft unveiled its vision for making it incredibly easy to develop apps across multiple platforms, including PCs, smartphones, tablets, wearable computers and even the Xbox One. This could go a long way toward eliminating the app gap Windows Phone has with iOS and Android since Windows desktop developers will be able to bring their software to mobile platforms and eventually to Microsoft’s gaming console with apparent ease.
None of these announcements guarantee success, of course, since there’s always going to be a gap between vision and execution. Remember that the idea of a cross-platform operating system that worked the same way on both tablets and PCs seemed like a great idea until Windows 8 actually came out and caused a massive backlash from many PC users. But the announcements Microsoft made today show the company realizes that it needs to be a lot more aggressive when it comes to competing for customers and that it can’t just rely on its Windows desktop monopoly anymore. This is good news not just for Microsoft but for every tech fan who loves seeing strong competition.