Microsoft Gets Its Groove Back

Microsoft Gets Its Groove Back
Microsoft, the butt of Windows Vista jokes for years, now appears on the road to a tech comeback. On Monday it debuted its Windows Phone 7 operating system in Barcelona, Spain pleasing critics.

The Windows Phone 7 launch caps a year of product launches met with critical praise. There was the launch of Microsoft's impressive new search engine (Bing), a popular new operating system (Windows 7), an upcoming suite of cloud-based products (Office Web Apps), and a revitalized Web presence (MSN.com).

Let's take a quick look back at what's behind this Microsoft renaissance.

Watch Out Apple iPhone

Microsoft on Monday unveiled Windows Phones Series 7, the latest version of its operating system for mobile devices, and it looks like an impressive and radical change from prior Windows mobile OS versions. Redmond clearly has its sights set on the everyday user with deep integration for social networking, Windows Live and Web-based e-mail. Series 7 phones will also have an Xbox LIVE feature extending the gaming features for millions of users.

Microsoft is also borrowing a page from Apple's playbook by dictating certain hardware and software features. All Series 7 phones must have the same three physical buttons on the front--back, start and search--and manufacturers cannot place their own overlay, such as HTC's TouchFLO, on top of the Series 7 user interface. The first Windows Series 7 phones won't show up until the end of the year, and there are still a lot of questions to be answered, such as how functional the Xbox LIVE gaming experience will be. But Microsoft appears to be on the right track with Series 7, and Windows Phones might just be 2010's holiday must-have phone.

Head in the Clouds

Microsoft's core business may be grounded in desktop software, but that hasn't stopped the company from forging into the clouds. Redmond's biggest move into Web apps is coming in the next few months when core Microsoft products like Word, Excel and PowerPoint move online. The cloud-based suite of products will compete directly against other office products like Google Docs and Zoho. Microsoft's Web apps, while available in technical preview, are not a complete product yet, so it's hard to know how popular they will end up being. But since Microsoft Office is so widely used in homes and offices around the world, it's a good bet Office Web apps are going to be popular.

The Mickey Rourke of OS Comebacks

Image Credit: UniquelyRourke.com
Despite a few upgrade problems for some users, Windows 7 must be like a breath of fresh air for Microsoft after the scorn the company endured over Vista. The latest version of Windows has garnered critical praise, users like it and the new OS has even been compared to Mac OS X in terms of ease of use and visual appeal. Windows 7 also got rid of some of those Vista-sized headaches like over zealous security measures, and improved on Vista features like thumbnail previews in the taskbar. Windows 7 may also do what Vista never could: convince users to drop Windows XP.

Solid Google Alternative

If you can get past that whole "Bing goes the Internet" episode, Bing is an excellent search engine and comparable to Google in a lot of ways. Some of Bing's features, like Maps and Visual Search, are heavily integrated with Silverlight, which may turn off some users. But there's a lot to love about Bing including the Related Searches feature, a running history of your current search session for easy backtracking, and a Google Maps-like Street View feature.

Windows Live also offers some great features worth checking out including 25 gigabytes of online storage with SkyDrive, social networking feeds that incorporate over 75 different services, a nice photo sharing feature and file syncing capabilities.

Website Makeover

To put it mildly, the current layout of MSN.com is a mess: it's packed with content to the point of being overwhelming, links to other Windows Live tools are scattered all over the page and don't even get me started on that scrolling news ticker.

But a new MSN is scheduled to replace the old version during the first part of this year. In fact, you can try out the public beta version right now. The new version still throws a lot of content at you, but the page layout doesn't overwhelm you with links, scrolling text and other annoying features.

The new MSN also features a "My apps" section where you can add a mini-Twitter client (a recent tweak), your Facebook newsfeed, a Hotmail link, as well as look at your local weather and Bing Maps. The features and improvements to the new MSN are a huge jump forward for the Web property, and may just win a few people over as a cleaner, but less customizable, alternative to iGoogle or Yahoo.

Mind you, not all aspects of Microsoft products are doing great. Internet Explorer 8 offers, in my view, a less than stellar browsing experience and can't compare to competitors like Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Opera. Windows will always be saddled with more security hassles than other operating systems and Hotmail is in dire need of improvement. But if you've been writing off Microsoft as a has-been tech company with little to offer, you might want to take a second look at what the folks in Redmond have been up to lately.

Connect with Ian Paul on Twitter (@ianpaul) or on Google Buzz.

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