One Operating System to rule them all.

Windows 10 Will Keep Microsoft in the Race

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Microsoft's new operating system Windows 10, due to ship next year, looks at first glance like a generational retreat to the safe stability of Windows 7. That appearance is deceptive.

The three major operating system developers -- Apple, Google and Microsoft -- are chasing the same dream, in which all devices -- mobile phones, computers, TV sets and Internet of Things gadgets -- work on the same platform. Each has approached the challenge from a different angle.

Apple has distinct operating systems for PCs and mobile devices (and now, it appears, a third one for wearables). It is constantly adding functionality so that users can switch between them seamlessly. The latest iteration of the concept is Handoff, which allows a user to start a task on one device and continue on another.

Google's initial idea was Chrome OS, basically a browser that provides access to cloud applications. Chrome has succeeded in a limited way, but Android, a full operating system, did better. Android achieved dominance in the mobile world, so Google appears to be gradually folding Chrome OS into it. Major hardware producers, such as Lenovo and HP, are now experimenting with Android as a desktop system.

Microsoft missed out on the mobile boom and was forced onto a third path: trying to port a desktop operating system onto touchscreen devices. It attempted that with Windows 8, hiring design powerhouse Pentagram to create a touch interface. The result was beautiful, but it made Windows 8 torture to use on a traditional keyboard-and-mouse desktop.

Microsoft lost a battle but it hasn't yet lost the war, because the single-platform dream has eluded its rivals until now, too. They have only done well with certain components, not in assembling the whole picture. As a result, the personal computing world has become highly fragmented. I use Apple's Mac OS X on my home PC, because it's the best desktop operating system ever designed; Android on my mobile devices, because it's flexible and easy to use with Google's market-leading cloud services; and Windows 7 at work, because it's convenient for my employer.

Microsoft's first task is to consolidate its hold on the corporate market, the company's only remaining entry point into the single-platform contest. To succeed, Microsoft needs to pander to IT managers, so they don't switch to Chrome OS/Android or even Apple's offerings. The next Windows system has to be easy to manage across multiple devices and intuitive for inexperienced users, to minimize calls to tech support. And it has to provide an easy-to-work-with command shell -- that DOS-like environment of typed-in commands that ordinary users never call up anymore. Laugh all you want about advertising something so antiquated in 2014, system administrators will listen.

The Windows 10 presentation on Tuesday showed that Microsoft is awake to all these necessities, after ignoring them in Windows 8. Pushing the system out from the work environment into pockets, travel bags and homes will be the next step.

Under what circumstances would I allow my employer to dictate my personal choice of computing platform outside the office? There would have to be a flexible system that would work across all device sizes and purposes. By that, I mean running the exact same apps, not duplicates, and seamless switching from one device to another: The same tabs would have to open in browsers, the same documents in the productivity apps, and the same mailboxes and social network feeds, configured in the same way.

Windows 10 takes a step in that direction. It's too early to say what exactly the platform will deliver, but it should be able to switch interfaces, depending on how a device is operated -- for example with or without a keyboard. The feature, called Continuum is not functional yet, but should be working by the time the system ships.

I'm not saying I trust Microsoft to get the single platform concept right next year. It isn't yet clear which of the three contenders will win that race, and my bet is on Google -- it has advanced furthest toward a software solution that unifies different devices. Microsoft, however, is making the best of the bad hand it was dealt by the company's previous management.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net