Why Microsoft will likely keep its bronze medal in the mobile computing marathon

Just running

I left Microsoft’s keynote at Build 2014 on Wednesday tired, but despite serious mountains to climb ahead of it, Microsoft showed me it has found new energy.

My weariness was likely a combination of a six-hour flight on Tuesday followed by the three-hour keynote the next day. Even as I stumbled out with the crowd, however, I could feel a sense of hope and accomplishment from the event: Microsoft introduced a wide range of improvements for the Windows family and if it had another three hours, I suspect it could have kept talking about new features and functions.

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With a product family as diverse as Windows, Windows Phone and the Xbox, it can’t be easy to tie everything together; yet that’s exactly what Microsoft is finally doing. And when Windows Phone first hit the scene, I suggested that a consistent experience between phones, tablets and desktops could help Microsoft. We’ll really get to test that theory over the coming months as the software updates arrive.

Microsoft certainly deserved its day in the sun today. The company presented a coherent, message relevant to the current and future state of computing. It even shrugged off its legacy licensing model by eliminating the cost for Windows on handsets and on tablets with nine-inch or smaller screens. That’s a smart move as it could help hardware partners shift focus away from other platforms and boost market share.

At the end of the day, however, there are two elephants in the room: Apple and Google.

iOS and Android

In fact, I noted this in a message to my editor during today’s keynote, saying, “All of this would be impressive… if Apple and Google didn’t exist.” Once I left Moscone West and started to digest the details of what Microsoft announced, I realized that as good as the announcements were, they’re still largely the product of having to come from behind in the current mobile computing shift.

Don’t misunderstand me: Windows users will (and should) be cheered by today’s news.

Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 Cortana

They’ll get Cortana, a digital assistant that looks to rival Siri and Google Now; the app can even read your local email to surface contextual information. They’ll be able to buy a universal app that works on a PC and phone, similar to iOS apps that run on both iPhone and iPad. And a touch-friendly version of Office is in the works, following the recently released iPad for Office.

Developers will be happy too because they can easily turn their Windows apps into Windows Phone apps, or vice versa. That can broaden the potential audience for Windows applications across millions more devices. Also potentially helping put more Windows devices in the wild is the elimination of some Windows license fees for device makers. This too could help scale Windows as Microsoft climbs the mobile mountain.

But for all the positive developments I heard today, the point is clear: For the most part, Microsoft is again trailing other popular platforms and is still playing a game of “catch up” in many regards. Not all of them of course; the ability to run a Universal Windows App on my Xbox One sounds incredible and nobody is offering that.

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Still, the whole situation reminds me of several remarks made by Microsoft representatives I’ve spoken with over the past few years. The general thought is that this race isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. Stephen Elop, soon to be back on the Microsoft executive team, alluded that sentiment when I interviewed him in late 2011. And I agree with him and the other Microsofties.

But here’s the thing: If you’ve ever run a marathon — and I’ve run several — or watched one in detail, you’ll know that trying to catch up isn’t a winning strategy. Instead, one runner or a small select group of runners often run away from the pack early and dare the rest of the runners to keep up. This whittles down the competition quickly and in most cases, one of these pace-breakers win the race.

Unless one of the leaders falters badly, few marathons are won from behind. Right now Apple and Google own the gold and silver medals and there’s no sign of a slip up in the near future. While Microsoft put on a great show and is working hard to make it an honest race, there wasn’t much to suggest it would advance beyond the bronze in this event.

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