A Journey from Google I/O to Microsoft Build

Microsoft, Apple, and Google try to define themselves as they become more alike

As I was sitting in the Build keynote I realized that both of the keynotes that I had attended recently (Google I/O and Build—I couldn’t get into WWDC) were really about me—well not just me but us, the consumers. This time it was Microsoft that had the DJ playing tunes as we were treated to images from Windows 8.1 and colored spotlights careened off of every surface (no pun intended) in the subterranean hall at Moscone South. The main thrust of the Build keynote, which started with Steve Ballmer announcing that Microsoft would now enter a time of rapid release for its software, was how well Windows 8 had done and how Windows 8.1 would be even better.

There were big cheers for the return of the Start Button, the ability to boot to desktop, a “refining” and “re-blending” of the massively overhauled Windows OS, all of which I think are great steps forward. In fact, there have been over 800 updates to Windows since November 2012. This already demonstrates that rapid release is the focus at Microsoft. And then there were the devices, so many devices, from Windows Phones to giant desktops that become giant tablets to all-in-ones that convert from laptops to tablets.

These announcements seemed to be the focus rather than updates for developers. Developer-focused announcements included a tool to help visualize and optimize power consumption for Visual Studio 2013, a way to make Async code easier to debug, and a streamlined strategy for integrating Azure. One announcement that caught my eye (and this was for the end consumer and developer) was that Windows 8.1 supports 3D printing natively and that Makerbots would actually be sold in Microsoft retail stores! The two final sections of the keynote were announcements of Bing as a development platform and The Spark Project (which I will talk about in a later post).

So during all of this I kept thinking, okay, good stuff, but this seems like just another step in the game of one-upsmanship we have seen recently from Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Each one comes out and says that they can do the same as the others but better. Take for example this little but exciting microinteraction on Microsoft’s Twitter app—as you type in a word, the suggested word feature comes up (as it does on many platforms and apps), but instead of lifting your finger to touch the word to select it, you can do it by swiping the space bar. You can also access numbers and symbols by swiping rather than going to another version of the onscreen keyboard. Time saving!

This intense consumer-driven competition definitely has its benefits—companies striving for better devices and longer battery life, and making real investments in user experience design—but it is also getting kind of old. While we are seeing advances in our personal devices such as voice control, search that anticipates your question, and stylish accessories, are we really making any significant strides or is the mobile device stagnating?

The endless race to match and one-up the features of each other’s devices and software seems to be creating a landscape of sameness. To these companies I would say the following: stop trying to get me to be a part of your tribe only. Devices and networks do not need to be separated and as a consumer seeing something different can actually be refreshing. Keep striving to make innovative new devices and OSes. This isn’t about Microsoft over Apple or Apple over Google or vice versa. But the silos that are being created by having the consumer choose to use only one company’s services are restrictive, and worse, stop innovation. Beyond simply aiming for feature parity, it is important that these companies take chances like Google Glass that make us consider wearable computing, Windows 8 when touch laptops are only emerging, and iPhone when we can’t even imagine computers can be carried in a pocket.