During Wednesday morning's Windows 10 preview event in Redmond, Washington, Microsoft executives made their strongest pitch to date in favor of a somewhat different interpretation of cross-platform functionality than Windows 8 and 8.1 delivered.
But is the company's vision for Windows 10 clear enough to be encapsulated in a single phrase or image that people can rally behind -- a vision as clear as Apple successfully conjures for its products and platforms? That's the essence of the question I put to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during a news conference following the public webcast session.
At least at first, Nadella's answer suggested he believed Microsoft didn't need to articulate such a message, especially now that the company plans to offer Windows 10 as an upgrade to Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 users free of charge for the first year.
"I think, for us, the fact that a billion-and-a-half users use Windows is incredible," the CEO's response began. "And we want to be able to serve that base and grow that base with the innovation. To me, the brand is a reflection of the innovation that people love. And that's what I want us to be focused on."
Nadella went on to say he didn't want Microsoft to be aiming for targets set by competitors. Rather, he feels Microsoft can attain genuine love from its customers ("love" is a word he invoked several times Wednesday) by demonstrating a continued series of product innovations.
Manufacturers and producers in various markets arguably do not need to be loved to be successful. But products often do, and when they are -- as was the case with the Volkswagen Beetle, Starbucks Coffee, and the Apple iPhone -- they change their product categories, usually for the better.
While Nadella addressed the question of the public perception of Microsoft, including against Apple as a company, the question posed to him was actually one about Windows 10. Some products that offer a free charter year of service come to be appreciated for that fact, but not necessarily loved. And in a market increasingly defined by a product that is loved (what's more, that runs a special version of Office for tablets), Windows 10 needs a value proposition for why customers should break their engagements.
Executive Vice President for Operating Systems Terry Myerson followed up Nadella's comments by advancing a potential catch-phrase for Windows 10: "a more personal computer." Among his company's aims, Myerson said, was to make Windows more approachable and more natural to users.
"So we kind of know what we stand for; we know what we are pursuing," said Myerson. "And we think it's worthy of the dedication we put into it."
During his earlier speech, Nadella cited one of Windows 10's key "strategy points" as the concept of Windows-as-a-service. It's a way of gently introducing the fact that customers who take Nadella up on his offer of free service to upgraders for one year, will officially be Windows subscribers after that year.
"It's a pretty profound change," said the CEO. "It's not just simple mechanics, although there are big changes in terms of our development methodology, our deployment policy, our servicing. It's much more fundamental than that. For us, it is about aligning our goals of successful Windows with customers and their experience and engagement with Windows. That's what Windows-as-a-service means."
Bob O'Donnell, chief analyst with Technalysis Research, said after the keynote session concluded that he was impressed with Microsoft's ability to convey a convincing message in favor of the new operating system. O'Donnell believes there will be something in Wednesday's message that speaks to users' basic needs, the simple return of the Start Menu being the most obvious. But the inclusion of Cortana, the voice-driven personal assistant from Windows Phone, he feels will speak to people who have difficulty getting their Windows to do everyday tasks, like find certain groups of pictures from their media libraries.
"All those things together creates a much smarter experience for people," said O'Donnell, "and I think it makes them rethink how they use their PC."
The convergence of all these changes, O'Donnell predicts, presents a compelling enough value proposition for existing PC owners to upgrade from Windows 7, or perhaps even older systems. However, he added, "the challenge that remains -- and I'm still concerned -- is, I don't think this changes the needle on mobile phones. But the PC and tablet story is very strong, and the fact that it's all free, I think, is just going to encourage doing additional feature updates."
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