(CNN) — Microsoft is not a company historically associated with minimalism. For quite some time, its operating system, Windows, has been plagued by tedious customization and nettlesome bloat.
In the mid-1990s, Microsoft’s “opt-out” versus “opt-in” approach to add-ons, upgrades, and middleware was notorious. Windows 95 was only exceeded in how annoying it was by the number of times a day “Macarena” played on the radio.
Microsoft’s approach was the opposite of its competitors Apple and Google, which defined their products through style or a sort of “we’ll take care of it for you” attitude, hiding complexities from users behind sparse interfaces.
But in 2015, a lot of things have been turned on their head. Apple is criticized for the usability nightmare associated with iTunes and Apple Music. Google is unplugging its products with Google Plus, which has been a disastrous and failed attempt to catch up on social media.
For the better part of the past two decades, Microsoft has struggled with its major updates but, refreshingly, the company seems to have found its stride with its recent releases. Windows 10 seems to be making up for lost ground with an operating system that is beautiful, easy to use, and dare I say … enjoyable. Some have compared it to Windows 8 by noting some similarities. But Windows 8 had hiccups with a semi-functional and very intrusive touch interface.
Windows 10 has done a complete about-face to the mouse and keyboard experience that has defined most of Windows’ history. Of course, the touch options aren’t gone completely, they’re just tucked away, ready to be activated when you need them. This means Windows users can still use apps that are optimized for touch.
What about upgrading? Seamless. Upgrading from Windows 8 to Windows 10 is easy and an immediate improvement in every way. This is not a repeat of XP and definitely not Vista. Although XP eventually proved itself to be a pretty decent operating system, many of us remember how awful and buggy it was initially. Vista, on the other hand, was a prolonged disaster for both the company and its users.
Some Windows users recall the dread invoked by putting together the words “upgrade” and “Windows.” Windows 10 takes away the headaches.
Windows 10 also marks a potential milestone in a change of direction for a company that has built a $170 billion empire by selling software. In Windows 10, the business model of Microsoft’s future is laid bare. In short: It’s all about data.
Microsoft is poised to compete directly with Google in an area that the latter has dominated so far. We’re not just talking about search. Rather, it’s about turning the entire desktop experience into a monetizing opportunity.
This is not Bing: The Sequel. It’s something much bigger and smarter. At this point, Microsoft’s operating system ships with a lot of services that users are already familiar with and dependent upon (e.g., OneNote, Outlook, Word, Excel). Windows 10 makes it clear that anything you do in these apps can (and likely will) be scanned, parsed, and sold to advertisers. Your emails, messages and documents — nothing is off limits.
Sure, Google has already won hands-down in the search business on the Internet. But Microsoft still owns the desktop in both professional and personal environments. That reach could be over 150 million users, a number that includes the majority of web users and then some. In other words, the company is building an ad business of epic proportions off its existing user base.
This perspective also helps to contextualize the company’s recent $100 million dollar investment in Uber. Imagine what it would mean to have the world’s most disruptive transportation startup feeding its data directly to Microsoft. This will include frequently traveled transportation routes, popular locations, and other information advertisers would salivate over, all at a global scale.
Then there’s Cortana, the digital assistant and Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now. Much like Google Now, Cortana is being positioned as a virtual concierge at the center of the OS itself. And it’s more useful. Google Now is limited by Google’s ubiquitous but fragmented Android ecosystem and minimal reach on users’ desktops.
Cortana may not dominate mobile like Siri and Google Now, but Windows’ dominance on desktops makes it an instant threat. If Microsoft can successfully ship 1 billion Windows 10 devices in the next three years, that alone would equal the number of Android users (798 million) and iPhone users (294 million) combined. Well played, Satya Nadella.
With access to all the data Windows users will be feeding it on a daily basis and partnerships with companies like Uber, Microsoft is in a much better position to out-Google Google by organizing the world’s information and personalizing it for users, and in the process, opening a potentially game-changing revenue opportunity with advertisers.
Jon Gosier is a Philadelphia-based data scientist and venture capitalist. He is the general partner at Cross Valley Capital, an early-stage tech investment fund. Follow him on Twitter: @jongos The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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