In February, when Microsoft first announced Satya Nadella as new CEO, I went on record to say he represented the company’s best chance to reach developers and create a thriving modern developer ecosystem. Seven weeks later, there’s already proof this is exactly what he plans to do. Earlier this month at BUILD, Nadella announced an open source version of WinJS to help developers build cross-platform Windows apps.
This is a big step for a corporation whose behavior once defined monopolization.
By embracing an open framework for apps developed on its OS, Microsoft is laying the foundation for a great modern developer ecosystem. Quite a departure for a company historically focused on owning every layer in the stack, including the development language.
This new focus on openness is clearly an attempt to drive a modern developer ecosystem, and – in my opinion – an attempt to gain more market share in mobile. With WinJS, developers can get more value out of their work for the platform, because it’s now an open-source project, open for other developers to build on via GitHub. And that’s important, because in a world driven more by consumer choice and expectation than ever before, Microsoft needs to create a thriving developer community if they want to deliver the kind of experiences people love – big ecosystems will always out-innovate internal R&D.
Users Drive the Market
For most of Microsoft’s existence, the devices and software we used at work were chosen largely by the IT departments of our employers. That’s slightly different from the world of today, where users bring their smartphones to work, and can use whatever apps they want to get their work done. So if an app doesn’t deliver an engaging, purposeful and enjoyable experience, employees will simply delete it and find something that will. (And with more than one million apps in Apple’s App Store alone, there’s no lack of options.)
And if you think this is a consumer-specific problem, think again. Elevated expectations around user experience have trickled into the enterprise, as well. IT can no longer roll out “one-size-fits-all” hardware and software to employees, because anyone with a smartphone can easily circumvent the system. Bring Your Own App is the new reality. Give employees lousy apps, and they simply won’t use them. So at the end of the day, business apps must be held to the same standard as consumer.
Betting a Sizable Chip on Openness
Of course, the only way to create a great experience on your mobile platform is to entice developers to build on it. Openness is one of the best ways for Microsoft to spark excitement amongst those developers, and create a modern, mobile developer ecosystem. An open community will persuade more mobile developers to explore and build on WinJS, knowing their code can be built on and that they play a vital role in the larger development community.
Apple and Google dominate mobile market share today: the iOS and Android operating systems together held around 95 percent of the mobile OS market share in 2013, with Windows Mobile hovering around 3.6 percent. It’s a pretty hard sell for Microsoft to convince a developer to focus on that small a percentage of the market.
But Microsoft is self-aware here; it knows it faces stiff competition from the Apple-Google duopoly. By opening WinJS, Nadella is hoping to increase developer mindshare and drive better mobile user experiences, which in turn will drive consumer market share. If WinJS takes off and developers build great experiences on it, you may soon have to stop making fun of your friends with Windows phones, and you might even find yourself with one in your own pocket.
Huge Potential in an Unstable World
But will Microsoft really be able to make a dent in Apple and Google’s market share? Maybe. Certainly iPhones and Androids aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but don’t forget that it wasn’t long ago that Blackberry had a dominant foothold in the enterprise, and Nokia was the game to beat in consumer. These are worlds that change rapidly.
There’s no guarantee Apple or Google will stay on top. The Internet of Things and an exploding number of connected devices – including real-world overlay technologies à la Google Glass and virtual reality interfaces like Oculus, along with smart TVs, connected cars and more – promise to change the game and utterly redefine what “mobile” is. Right now, any category leadership position is shaky at best.
If Microsoft’s strategic and philosophical shift is any indication –and I believe it is – the next few years are going to be exciting, but also terrifying, for technology companies. Microsoft as led by Nadella rightly recognizes that the technology industry right now is volatile, but it carries just as much potential as it does risk. Openness as a strategy makes perfect sense in this environment. Not only will it excite developers, but it’s also the best way to future-proof Microsoft.