Microsoft's Metro strategy

08 Jun 2012

With Metro and Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to put the Genie back in the bottle and regain control of a market that it used to have a monopoly on. Whether it will succeed or not is anyone’s guess, but the stakes are high, indeed.

Microsoft has a three-screen, single UI game going forward. The UI’s name is Metro, first seen on Windows Phone. Soon, it will be everywhere on slates (tablets) and also on Desktops as Windows 8.

The promise that Windows 8 brings to the beleaguered CIO is security in this era of bring your own device to work. Allowing employees access to corporate data via personal devices is becoming the norm these days, but how can these unknown devices be trusted? Everyone knows that securing the employee’s device will be important, nay, essential if legal requirements on data security compliance is to be met, but how?

Only recently, with the move of Windows away from Intel x86 to the ARM platform (which all contemporary smartphones run on) has that been made clear. On ARM, Windows 8 will require a locked bootloader. This means that the tablet or computer will only load an OS which has been digitally signed off by Microsoft.

On Intel x86, that step is still optional, but on ARM it is understood to be mandatory.

Apps that use the Metro UI will also have to be loaded only through the Windows App Marketplace, though, again on x86, legacy apps (better known as programs) can continue. Those Metro apps will be vetted by Microsoft in the name of security.

Is anyone seeing the trend here?

Security has become the perfect excuse to lock down a once open platform and allow Microsoft to control how the platform is used, just like Apple does with iOS.

It should also mean that Microsoft gets a slice of all apps sold and transactions through those apps and ads, just like Apple does with iOS.

It also means that for a new generation of bandwidth hungry slates and notebooks, mobile operators are being left out of an ecosystem that treats them just as dumb pipes, again, just like Apple does with iOS.

As a security strategy, locking down everything with digital signatures simply does not work and thus all you are left with is the lock-in factor that has slipped in under the guise of security. Apple’s iOS, a relatively simple OS, has introduced many to the concept of Jailbreaking - exploiting a flaw in the OS to allow non-Apple sanctioned software to be installed.

Ergo, for Windows, all it needs is one sloppily coded printer driver, graphics driver or popular plug in (Flash, anyone?) to open up a vulnerability. That could be a Jailbreak-type method for loading apps, or it could be a more sinister payload.

What is left is a way for Microsoft to get back in play and get a slice of the app pie rather than the OS pie it used to own.

Remember MS-Exchange based push email back in the early versions of Windows Mobile? It was no less capable than BlackBerry push mail, but the catch was that it had to run off a Microsoft Exchange server. Microsoft’s core business model was to sell more Windows Server and Exchange licences and if that meant crippling the phone in doing so, so be it. However that did not work out as planned and instead it stunted a market and left the door wide open for RIM to turn country after country into a nation of Crackberry push mail addicts.

So now Microsoft has turned around 180-degrees. No, there is no longer the focus on selling more Windows licences, but instead the focus has shifted on getting a slice of the app revenue for all Metro apps.

The question is, how will operators react as the Windows Phone 8 phones and Windows 8 Slate tablets start eating up network bandwidth? Will it be a case of promoting the lesser of three evils between Apple, Google and Microsoft? Or will the larger networks be looking to do a Baidu - that is take the Google AOSP (Android Open Source Project) and launching a heavily carrier optimised version that bypasses the Google Play store (formerly known as the Android Market) in favour of their own?

Apple would obviously not allow that, Google, with its open source play has no choice. The question is how Microsoft will allow the operators in on the new Metro ecosystem, if at all.

Perhaps it is this, rather than its partnership with Nokia or the affordability of lower-end Windows Phones that will make or break Microsoft’s comeback.

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