Microsoft was the pre-eminent name in computers for a long time, with its seemingly unbeatable tag team of the Windows operating system and Office suite.
But that was back in the days when PCs ruled the world, before mobile phones grew brains and tabletmania swept the planet.
These days Microsoft is struggling behind companies like Apple and Google, which have spent the last few years redefining the industry Microsoft once owned.
Microsoft still makes its old software standbys for your desktop PC.
But the company is also enriching the total scope of its product range with its own hardware devices and an excellent system of internet-based cloud services.
I spent the last month or so using a variety of Microsoft products. The company’s own Surface Pro became my mobile computer for a while. And two phones, the high-end HTC 8X and a bargain-level Lumia 620, shared my pockets.
I used these devices with Microsoft’s new Office 365 online service, which is targeted at businesses and workgroups. I also explored Microsoft’s consumer-oriented cloud services such as Outlook.com and SkyDrive.
I wanted to find out what the current state of affairs was with Microsoft’s efforts, and try to ascertain where its strategy differed from its competitors. I wanted to see how Microsoft was tying its total product and service ecosystem together.
For its suite of online services, Microsoft is borrowing heavily from Google’s advanced cloud-system sensibility. At the same time, for its physical goods, the company is drawing inspiration from the graceful design of Apple’s hardware products.
However, while Microsoft clearly understands its competitors’ strengths in concept, it is having trouble implementing them in spirit.
Google Apps, for example, is a decent enough suite of web-based Office-like software tools that you can use anywhere, anytime.
Microsoft’s new Office 365 is, at first blush, a superior and visually more attractive offering.
Unfortunately, Office 365 only works fully in certain circumstances that can best be summed up as, “when you’re using Internet Explorer on a Windows PC.”
So while functionally comparable to Google Apps on paper, Microsoft Office 365 lacks the one key quality that defines the heart of Google’s success: platform agnosticism.
Google doesn’t care where you use their stuff, just as long as you use it. Microsoft, on the other hand, will handicap your experience with their services unless you use Windows.
It’s a confused approach to the new post-PC era that unfortunately extends to Microsoft’s efforts with hardware.
Take the enigmatic Surface Pro. Is it a tablet? Or a notebook? Even Microsoft can’t seem to decide.
The Surface Pro is much too heavy to ever be used purely as a tablet. But it lacks a keyboard in its base configuration, so it doesn’t make a good notebook, either.
So which is it? Neither. Instead, the Surface Pro stands as a frustrating example of crippling compromise.
Unfortunately, the Surface Pro’s identity confusion is more than skin deep because, once turned on, it suffers from a unique type of schizophrenia called Windows 8.
As with any Windows 8 computer, using the Surface Pro is akin to being a sailor on choppy seas. You’re constantly tossed between the touch-based Metro interface and the old-school, mouse-driven Desktop.
The colourful, simple geometry of Windows 8’s Metro environment is an absolute joy to use. If that’s the only interface that the Surface Pro sported, it would be a triumph.
Unfortunately, at any given moment, without any warning, you can be ejected from this blissful state down into the dungeons of the Windows Desktop. This is a distinctly touch-unfriendly place and, without a keyboard or mouse, you’ll quickly be creatively cursing at the Surface Pro.
Ironically, this operating system dichotomy makes it especially difficult to actually use the Surface with Microsoft’s own Office 365 suite.
The main problem is that Office doesn’t exist for Metro. You have to depart the nirvana and suffer the old school Desktop if you want to use Office.
Windows seems to have become the anchor weighing down Microsoft’s most recent efforts. It’s the tweed plaid jacket on an old guy trying to ingratiate himself into the cool, young social scene at a trendy club.
Office 365 would trounce Google Apps if only it weren’t so dependent on Windows. The Surface Pro could have been truly great if only its ties to Windows had been severed.
I’m not saying Microsoft needs to kill Windows. But the company needs to accept that it’s once-dominant operating system has been reduced to just another ingredient in a big internet recipe.
Windows is no longer the cornerstone of the technology industry that defined Microsoft.
Rather, Windows has become an anchor that prevents Microsoft from moving forward, and the company has become a rudderless boat circling it endlessly.
After my time spent with the full scope of Microsoft’s ecosystem, I get the sense that the company lacks any sense of strategy beyond desperately adopting the successful trajectories of Apple and Google.
And that’s no strategy at all for a once-dominant company. Microsoft needs to bring something new to the table, some new ideas, some new products. It needs cohesion and focus.
The company needs to make some difficult decisions, like demoting its aging Windows brand, and take some risks with new technologies to catch the world’s attention.
As it stands, the biggest risk Microsoft is currently taking is that of being ignored.
Andrew Robulack is an award-winning entrepreneur, writer and consultant specializing in using technology and the internet to communicate. Read his blog at www.geeklife.ca.