Ballmer pushes 'family of devices' as Microsoft's new mantra

Windows now simply a 'shell,' says CEO

If words mean anything, Microsoft will dramatically expand the number -- and type -- of devices it makes in-house.

In a Thursday memo, CEO Steve Ballmer used the phrase "family of devices" 10 times as he referred to Microsoft's long-expressed strategy of becoming a "devices and services" company.

"Going forward, our strategy will focus on creating a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses," Ballmer stated [emphasis added].

The memo, part of the firm's announcement that it was reshuffling product lines and executives into four new engineering groups and centralizing most of the business decisions previously made by separate fiefdoms, dwelled extensively on hardware.

An entire section of the memo was headlined "Our Family of Devices." No such section was relegated to "services," the second of the two-pronged strategy that in a conference call with financial analysts and reporters Thursday Ballmer said had been under way for more than a year.

At times, Ballmer leaned on the memo during the conference call -- reading from it in places -- and there, too, used the "family of devices" phrase.

But the memo was the clearest expression -- albeit in general terms -- of Microsoft's plans.

"We will design, create and deliver through us and through third parties a complete family of Windows-powered devices," Ballmer said [emphasis added]. "Our family will include a full spectrum of both partner and first-party devices. Our family will include phones, tablets, PCs, 2-in-1s, TV-attached devices and other devices to be imagined and developed."

That syncs with analysts' opinions yesterday that Microsoft's reorganization, particularly the appearance of a Devices and Studios Engineering Group, meant the firm would be more aggressive in designing and selling its own hardware, ranging from a Surface-branded phone and notebook -- probably an ultrabook -- to a diverse line of Surface tablets with several screen sizes, including a smaller 8-in. display.

The analysts interpreted the new group's existence as a more bellicose attitude toward its OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners. (In his memo, Ballmer used the word "partner" just twice in the context of OEMs, the same number of times he wrote "first-party" to refer to Microsoft's own hardware efforts.)

During the Q&A portion of the call, Ballmer reiterated Microsoft's strategy. "You will see us invest across a wide range of device types, both first-party and third-party," he said, noting that the range will contain both "the very smallest [and] the very largest devices."

The other point Ballmer made in the memo -- again, in an indirect way -- was that Microsoft will, as some have long suspected, push until Windows and Windows Phone are essentially the same operating system.

"Developers must be able to target all our devices with a common programming model that makes it easy to target more than one device," wrote Ballmer.

A word cloud based on Ballmer's memo shows the emphasis on "devices" and "family." (Image: Tagxedo.com.)

Currently, although Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone share a kernel, they do not share a complete code base; apps written for Windows 8 and Windows RT, for example, cannot run on Windows Phone 8, and vice versa. A "write-once-run-many" model would give Microsoft an advantage even Apple doesn't enjoy: Apple's ecosystem is not singular, as its iOS apps are incompatible with OS X.

"We will have one technology base to enable us in core areas, as opposed to two, or more," Ballmer said during the call, referring to, at the least, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, with Windows RT tossed in to arrive at "or more."

"The best way to get to one technical base or one technology base is to make sure that we're pulling together things and having people collaborate where they need to, not duplicating efforts," Ballmer added.

The experts applauded Microsoft's decision to gather all Windows development under one organizational umbrella. Terry Myerson, formerly the head of Windows Phone, will lead an Operating Systems Engineering Group encompassing all platforms, including mobile phones, desktops, notebooks, tablets and even game consoles.

"Having all the OSes under one roof was long overdue," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst with IDC.

David Cearley of Gartner used the word "synergy" several times in an interview yesterday as he opined on the OS consolidation under Myerson. "This is positive, and will provide greater synergies and let Microsoft deliver on a common OS," Cearley said.

If word and phrase count matters, Windows will, in fact, be relegated to a supporting role, a radical demotion for the operating system that defines Microsoft for most customers.

"Windows" was mentioned only three times in Ballmer's memo, and in what detail he provided about its place within the company, referred to it six times as simply a "shell."

"We will continue to reinvent the core 'shell' of our family of devices and build upon what we have started with Windows 8," Ballmer wrote [emphasis added]. "We will keep evolving our new modern look, expanding the shell so that it allows people and their devices to capture, store and organize their 'stuff' in new ways. Our shell will natively support all of our essential services."

Microsoft has taken a page from Apple's playbook here: Customers know "iPhone," "Mac" and "iPad," but not "iOS" and "OS X." Microsoft aims for the same end, where the operating system is not dominant, perhaps not even marketed as it has been for decades, but as merely one component of a device.

Ballmer may have put it in its most succinct, transparent form in his prepared comments at the top of the conference call. "The form of the delivery of our value will shift to really thinking about devices and services, versus packaged software," he said.

This article, Ballmer pushes 'family of devices' as Microsoft's new mantra, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.

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