Windows 10: What’s the big idea?

Being seated among the other reporters in the exhibition hall of Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington headquarters last January 21, for the company’s big Windows 10 Consumer Preview event, was like attending a reunion of a PC users’ group from the 1980s, only not in a bowling alley.  I saw people with whom, in another era, I engaged in vigorous discussions about the issues that shaped our world: whether security notices should nag PC users, whether lock screens perform vital functions, and the intuitiveness of Ctrl-Alt-Delete.

The immediately shocking thing to me was that we were mostly the same people.  In a way, this was the true story of the day, only it’s so abstract that it’s impossible to frame in a “news” context with a crisp headline and a “nut graf.”  But it’s the most important point of all:  Most of us in the room used to be the young trailblazers, the tech geeks, the square pegs.  Now that we were the old hands, it occurred to me there were no young trailblazers or fresh, starry-eyed Trekker geeks to tell our stories to, or to whom we could show the proverbial ropes.  The youngest people there were the ones checking our coats, catering the meals, and managing the caterers.

The entire point of the event was for Microsoft to stir up our interest and enthusiasm about an operating system, so that we could go forth and tell the world about the magnificence and grandeur and consciousness-raising tranquility of an operating system.  But if you listened carefully to the back-room conversations among the young folks paid, like nurses in an assisted living facility, to make sure we didn’t fall over in our chairs and break our hips, you realized that nothing about this mystical circus mattered one scintilla to them.

They weren’t going to become enthralled with an operating system any more than they would with an air filter or a cheese grater or an antihistamine.  They had moved on.

So we reporters gathered together in the exhibition hall.  There, we listened to two solid hours of grandiose explanations of operating system wizardry that literally included 3D glasses, holograms, and a help system doubling as a stand-up comedienne.  After the end of it, I asked Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to articulate, as best he could, an ideal that speaks to Windows 10 as effectively as the “Apple ideal” speaks to the users of iPhones and iPads.

“To me, the brand is a reflection of the innovation that people love,” Nadella responded.  “And that’s what I want us to be focused on.  I don’t want to have an enemy [of] anybody else... I want us to stand for, what is it that we as a company can do our best work in, and have people love us for that.”

Certainly it speaks to Nadella’s strength of character that he can admit to a room full of reporters that he just wants to be loved.  Any of us who count the number of times our tweets get favorited, or watch the live analytics results from our regular posts, appreciate this man’s position.

But that wasn’t really my question.  I wanted to know, if we as a people were to get behind the Windows operating system the way we did in the last century, why.

Any technology product, to be successful, must be tangible in the public mind.  Even if it exists only in an abstract sense, it must be encapsulated by an ideal.  Apple has accomplished this gloriously.  But notice its faithful users are not iOS “fanatics.”  Indeed, an Apple operating system is either minimalistic like iOS, or fundamentally well over a decade old like Mac OS.  An Apple OS is sublimated, a minor role in its passion play.  People love their iPhones and iPads, and trust that whatever’s inside of them works the way it’s intended to.

Google, albeit with a different strategy, has accomplished much the same goal.  It approaches users with an ideal of omnipresence, of ubiquitous access.  And with much cheaper parts and much sloppier code than the Apple faithful will ever admit Apple can produce.  Still, a Google OS has a more utilitarian profile.  It’s not something to publish a magazine about.

So you can’t exactly blame Satya Nadella for declining to explain why anyone should come to “love” Windows 10.  We don’t “love” operating systems any more — the young people standing outside the hallway, doing their best to avoid listening to us, were proof enough.  If this had been Steve Jobs on stage, those kids would not have had their earbuds on with their backs turned to us.

Toward the end of the evening, as the cocktails and cheese began to run out and the crowd was breaking up, I decided to engage some of the younger folk in conversation.  It began with small talk about things we might have in common: weather patterns in our hometowns, tastes in music, deflated footballs.  Then one fellow asked me the question that must have been on his mind all evening.

“So... how long you been doin’ this?”

I knew what he meant.  All day, from his perspective, he had been a bystander at other people’s high school reunion.  I told him the first experience I had at a gathering of folks touting the magic of microchips was 37 years ago.  And the first time I covered Microsoft as a working journalist was 31.

I talked for a minute about those first conferences, about Microsoft setting up TRS-80s and, later, IBM PCs on Samsonite tables covered with bed sheets, and firing up accounting programs with menus you navigated by number, before the advent of arrow keys.  I talked about Windows 1.0, where Word ran in one corner and Reversi in the opposite one; and about Windows/386, when dozens of people clamored around a cheap display to see whether the spreadsheet and the chess program truly did multitask with one another.

Before that minute had passed, I had gathered a small audience.  They listened attentively, laughed, marveled at what digital technology must have been like when their parents were their age.  And I realized I had done a better job of engaging young people about what Windows used to be, than Satya Nadella had done about what Windows was trying to become.

To say these young folks had their backs turned to us during the presentation is to fall victim to the trap of relativity.  From their perspective, in their world where they’re struggling to make just enough to pay their student loans, our backs were turned to them.  We who think we take the lead on technology have not found a message, an ideal, a story line that’s compelling enough to pass to our progeny.

When given an opportunity to present the catch-phrase for such an ideal, Microsoft’s leader boiled it down to, “Please love us.”  The kids out there, the ones with more of a future than we have, truly want to love us.  But we have to turn and face them first.