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How Microsoft became the MVP of the tech world in 2018

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While the ground all around Facebook burned (and continues to blaze), Apple was criticized for hiking up device prices and innovating at a slower pace, and social platforms made sweeping moves to combat fake news and their creators like Alex Jones, one tech company quietly rocketed to the top relatively unscathed with win after win.

That company was Microsoft

The Windows company started by Bill Gates and mismanaged by Steve Ballmer, has flourished under CEO Satya Nadella after he took over in 2014.

Microsoft’s rise wasn’t the result of Windows 10 domination. With Nadella at the helm, Microsoft has diversified its portfolio beyond its bread-and-butter operating system, expanding to regions less sexy but increasingly lucrative and crucial to connecting our lives, like the cloud and “edge” computing. 

Doubling down on the enterprise and services weren’t the only things that made Microsoft’s year so successful. In 365 days, Microsoft’s Surface computers catapulted to the become the class-leading devices they were always meant to be; it embraced iOS and Android platforms; Xbox stretched beyond its hardcore gaming base to become more accessible; the open-source community was welcomed; and so much more.

With so many victories under its belt this year, it’s no wonder Microsoft briefly became the world’s most valuable publicly traded company.

Company transitions are always challenging, but this year Microsoft’s rise really stood out. Where it previously lacked a clear identity — caught between its Windows legacy and late and failed attempt at breaking into mobile — it now does. If I were to boil it down, I’d say Microsoft has masterfully blended the best of Apple and Google into one. Its core DNA is both hardware and software and the connectivity that ties them together.

A future beyond Windows

Windows is only one of many of Microsoft's pillars.

Windows is only one of many of Microsoft’s pillars.

Image: miles goscha/mashable

Ballmer might have pushed for Windows to brute force its way into as many devices as possible, but Nadella clearly doesn’t see things the same way.

Nadella may not be the charismatic visionary Steve Jobs was, or as nerdy as Bill Gates, or as operations-savvy as Tim Cook, but he knows how to skate to where the puck will be. 

“The world is a computer,” Nadella said at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this year. 

With this keen awareness that computing is changing from a local box to an intelligent service that users need to access from anywhere, Microsoft’s invested heavily in the cloud, AI, and connectivity. 

Windows 10 is a great product and will likely always be a major tentpole of Microsoft, but Azure, chatbots, Microsoft 365, and “Intelligent Edge” (or just edge computing), where computing is done on distributed nodes on a network, are the places where things are headed, and Nadella knows it.

Not being anchored to Windows has allowed Microsoft to narrow its focus in certain areas and use its strengths create and provide its services to where users are, like iOS and Android. The old Microsoft would have stubbornly resisted defeat and refused to bring its services to other platforms. But new Microsoft has given us really great apps native to competing platforms like the fantastic Outlook app for iOS.

Surface-ing to the top

Microsoft's Surface devices kicked butt this year.

Microsoft’s Surface devices kicked butt this year.

Image: raymon d wong/mashable

Microsoft first launched the Surface in 2012 as a vessel for the ill-fated Windows RT. The following year the Surface Pro made its debut with full Windows 8. Unfortunately, the operating system was such a turd, it all but sank the device.

The 2-in-1 tablet-laptop hybrid vision was ahead of its time, hampered by poor execution. It wouldn’t be until the Surface Pro 3 and 4 that the form factor started to really take and hold shape as a viable laptop replacement, mostly thanks to Windows 10.

Microsoft made it known it was serious about developing the Surface brand into a family of powerful computers last year when it unloaded the Surface Pro (2017), Surface Laptop, Surface Book 2, and Surface Studio. They were good devices, but fell short of greatness. 

Not so this year. 

Microsoft came out swinging hard. The Surface Laptop 2 is our pick for best laptop of the year. The Surface Pro 6 is unmatched as a 2-in-1 laptop replacement. The Surface Studio 2 is a stunning and more far more powerful desktop for creative professionals if you can stomach the price.

The lineup is the best Microsoft’s put out. Loyalists might even find enjoy the new Cortana-equipped Surface Headphones.

The only dud is the Surface Go, which is woefully underpowered in my opinion. However, portability or LTE is of more importance than power, it’s fairly passable. 

Microsoft has never been the strongest hardware maker. But this year, the Surface family outclassed even Apple, Google, and HP’s best.

It took seemingly forever, but the Surfaces are finally products everyone should take seriously.

Expanding Xbox

Xbox is more than just a console now.

Xbox is more than just a console now.

Image: ADAM ROSENBERG / MASHABLE

Microsoft is still rebuilding the Xbox brand years after fumbling the Xbox One with a misguided launch aimed at positioning the console as a do-it-all home entertainment system instead of a solid game console.

Console wars are fascinating to watch because each generation is up for grabs by any of the big three (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft). Rather than trying to fight Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Nintendo’s Switch head-on, Microsoft opened the box to a wider audience.

It applied its knowledge from the PC world to give Xbox new legs to stand on. The console got official keyboard and mouse support. Microsoft even made a special Xbox Adaptive Controller for people with disabilities making the platform more inclusive for all.

You can bemoan the exclusive games Xbox has compared to PlayStation 4, but Xbox took big strides forward for everyone this year.

More developer friendly

Buying GitHub was a way to court developers.

Buying GitHub was a way to court developers.

In a past era, Microsoft was trapped in tunnel vision. It was Windows everywhere or nothing. 

The moment Nadella took over, he made it clear Windows was not the only future for the company. He reorganized Microsoft so that it was more open, more developer-friendly. Attracting developers to build apps and experiences on multiple platforms rather than silo them to Windows was a top priority.

Buying GitHub, the world’s largest repository for open-source code and projects, for $7.5 billion allowed Microsoft to repair the weakened developer relationships from failed forays into areas such as mobile and the disaster that was Windows 8.

“Microsoft is a developer-first company, and by joining forces with GitHub we strengthen our commitment to developer freedom, openness and innovation,” Nadella said at when Microsoft announced it would acquire GitHub.

Most of all, the GitHub acquisition reflected a new Microsoft willing to embrace previously taboo strategies and move and fail quickly — similar to how Google operates.

On the offense in 2019

Surface chief Panos Panay likely has more greatness up his sleeve in 2019.

Surface chief Panos Panay likely has more greatness up his sleeve in 2019.

The momentum Microsoft built in 2018 doesn’t look like it’ll slow down in 2019. If anything, the Surface devices will only get better (and maybe even more affordable) and Microsoft’s commitment to Azure cloud and online services will deepen. Office is set to get revamp with the Fluent design language.

We’ve already seen some of these moves recently. In a somewhat surprising announcement, Microsoft announced its Edge browser would switch from its own proprietary web rendering engine to Chromium, the same underlying tech that powers Google Chrome, “over the next year or so.” Microsoft painted the change as a way to “deliver improved compatibility for everyone and create a simpler test-matrix for web developers.”

Though some pundits fear the loss of competition, allowing Chromium’s monopoly in the web browser market to expand further, the switch will allow Microsoft to bring Edge to currently unsupported platforms such as macOS and Chrome OS. And that’s a win for everyone.

Even Microsoft’s HoloLens seems like it’ll get some new life in the new year. While HoloLens has disappointed as a mixed reality headset for consumers, it appears Microsoft will reposition it for the enterprise much like Google did for Google Glass 2.0. Its $480 million contract with the U.S. Army to deploy 100,000 HoloLens headsets for training suggests as much too.

And rumors have already begun for the next Xbox with the possibility Microsoft might release a cheaper disc-less Xbox by the end of 2019 and successors for both the Xbox One S and One X in time for a holiday 2020 release. Not to mention, Project xCloud, a Netflix-like service for streaming Xbox games to any supported device, is expected to launch in 2019.

The seeds Nadella’s been planting since he hopped in the chief executive seat blossomed in full this year. Looking ahead, Microsoft’s future looks bright so long as it doesn’t drop the ball.

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