Two weeks ago I went through a familiar set of steps. I took a cab to the airport and got on a plane to San Francisco. I tweeted jokes about the absurdity of air travel. I met up with my friends John Gruber and Brent Simmons. We had a great dinner, maybe one drink more than was advisable, and woke the next morning to walk over to Moscone to attend a conference.
A Microsoft conference.
When I was 13 my mom bought a 486 with Windows 3.11. I wanted to get a Mac like the ones at school, but she was studying computer science. It didn’t really stick. I, on the other hand, became obsessed with that computer and ended up doing a fair bit of her homework. She eventually dropped the class, which explains why I’m such a lousy programmer.
When I ran up the hourly(!) AOL bill and lost my access, I opened a phone book(!) and discovered a local BBS. It had a surprisingly active chat area. I wondered how many modems the BBS had. Talking to the people in the group, I asked where everyone was from. Not one of them was even from my state. It turns out what I had connected to was IRC, and with that one step I had discovered the depth and scope of the connected world. My mind was blown.
For years after that, I obsessed over technology. I built my own computers from parts I bought online. I stalked the aisles of CompUSA. And like any impressionable youth in the ’90s I began to experiment with Linux. We all knew Microsoft was evil; one of the first websites I ever visited was a page with animated gifs of Bill Gates as Satan. I read entire books in the hopes of getting Linux to run on my computer. I succeeded to various degrees, but at no point my life have I ever felt I had Linux running at 100% on a desktop computer. Free as in beer, free as in speech. Whatever. Really I just wanted something that wasn’t Windows.
For so much of my digital life Microsoft has been a necessary evil; an empire so vast and omnipresent that we couldn’t survive without its wares. For all the promise of Linux, I always ended up back on Windows for one simple reason: it worked. Photoshop ran on Windows. Games ran on Windows. AIM ran on Windows. Microsoft was an inescapable fact of life.
I remember the first candy-colored iMac. I laughed at it. I laughed at the tangerine iBook. Mac users were so dumb, man. You know? Those things were for idiots and old people.
First, I bought an iPod. Then I downloaded iTunes. Then before I knew it people I respected were using Macs. Wait, it runs on UNIX? Like that 486 years before, I became obsessed. Eventually I bought an iPhone, and before long I was designing apps for it. At some point along the way, I stopped caring about the technical details. I forgot about specs. I forgot about the days of staying up late at night reading tutorials on how to overclock my CPU or recompile my libs. I forgot all about Linux, and I forgot all about Windows.
Except for my Xbox 360, of course. I’m not the gamer I once was, but I’ll still take a week off of work when an Assassin’s Creed or Arkham game comes out. For my money (and I mean that literally) the Xbox is the most human product Microsoft has ever made, and for years it’s sat below my TV as a monument to the company that could have been. The underdog product built from the ground up by a company that wanted to be the best at something.
When I say that walking around the floor of Microsoft’s Build conference was weird, I don’t mean that from the perspective of an iOS designer who crossed enemy lines. I felt more like some kind of war-torn refugee, returning to find that home had been rebuilt into a palace. For all the years I spent trying to escape from this company, the place seemed friendly. Bright colors, poppy music, happy people. Tones of Microsoft’s trademark dorkiness, for sure. But cut with a new sincerity.
Tellingly, the look-under-your-seat give-away for this developer conference was an Xbox One. Not a Windows 8 phone or a notebook or a Surface or anything else you’d expect developers to want to write apps for. The game console. The most human of the Microsoft products. It feels aspirational. “Here, developers. We got this one right. Let’s do more like this.”
I spent some time playing with the Surface tablets and Windows phones and was surprised by the little things I liked. Looking at anything Android, it’s hard not to be cynical about the copy-whatever-Apple-did nature of smartphones these days. Microsoft is smartly following the scent of their Xbox success, looking for the things that allow the Xbox to resonate with people. Time will tell whether or not this approach results in products people want to own and use, but the trajectory is promising.
As a designer, the smart play for me is to watch this different approach closely. If there’s something to be learned from Microsoft’s ideas, I want to learn it. I won’t be getting rid of my iOS devices any time soon, but it’s sure interesting to see Microsoft as the underdog. It suits them.