It wasn't long ago that Microsoft started a bold charge into future. A new touch-friendly operating system, a transforming, first party tablet-computer, a game console designed not just to play games but to take over your TV. But now, Microsoft is in full retreat, and we're at risk of losing all the great stuff that it risked so much to accomplish.
Two steps forward, one step back
Between Windows 8 and the Xbox One, Microsoft has done a lot of backtracking recently, but that in and of itself is not the problem. Despite the potential awesomeness left behind—like a wonderful (if always-on) cloud-based future for the Xbox One—these pivots were necessary changes. It's not worth being The Future if you alienate everyone in the mad dash getting there.
For a while there, that was exactly what was happening. Windows 8's reluctance to meld the brand-new and kind of bewildering Metro interface with the comforting, familiar, and still-present desktop was a mistake that needed fixing. The Xbox One's poorly-pitched sprint to an always-on, disc-free future gave gamers whiplash long before the console even came out. While both moves had their future-looking merit, they were just a little too much too fast—and understandably, they ended up being tough for folks to swallow.
So as a result, we got our first round of Microsoft backtracks. Important, metered admissions of failure that let Microsoft push through criticism and continue down the road it was on, except at a speed that wouldn't make everyone motion sick. Windows 8.1 and the Windows 8.1 Update introduced tiny, subtle tweaks that made the new operating system feel homier to converts without throwing out the good parts that made Windows 8 innovative.
At the same time, the Xbox One eased up on always-on connectivity and and made Kinect optional without completely deep-sixing the voice, camera, and cloud functionality that makes the Xbox One feel futuristic.
You'll notice a pattern here: First, lunge forward and freak everyone out. Second, stagger backward a little and iron out the kinks.
But there's a third step that's perhaps the most important: Get back to moving forward (at a reasonable pace). That's the one Microsoft is now starting to screw up royally.
Where Microsoft's previous retcons have been metered and necessary, they just keep coming. And the tone is starting to change.
The shift started amid rumors that a Windows 9 announcement was on the way for Microsoft's developer conference this year. That wholesale abandonment of Windows 8 didn't happen, but there was another, smaller (but still sinister) change: The Start Menu is coming back. Of all the things that were were actually wrong with Windows 8, the lack of a Start Menu as not one of them. Sure, the Start Screen is a little different from what you might be used to, but it's functionally identical. Better even! The tweaks that came with Windows 8.1 ensured that.
The Start Screen was emblematic of Windows 8's progress, and the world of touch Microsoft is trying so hard to embrace. Its removal now—after such hard-fought persistence—feels like the first of what could be many frivolous reversals. Reversals that could undo everything the rocky transition from Windows 7 to Windows 8 actually accomplished. Windows 8.1 and its upgrade were necessary compromises. Bringing back the Start Menu is just surrender.
Whereas Microsoft's Start Menu flip-flopping is kind of symbolic, more of a dangerous warning sign than a deadly mistake, the new Kinect-free bundle of the Xbox One could have far more serious consequences. It's been in the cards from the very moment Microsoft made the Kinect non-mandatory, and is no doubt a practical decision to do battle directly with the $400 PS4, but an Xbox One without a Kinect is a quiet but irreversible change to the future of console gaming.
It's not a change Microsoft is explicitly making, no. Instead it is a choice it's off-loading on gamers, who will vote with the dollars they use to buy Kinect-less Xbox Ones. And who can blame them? The Kinect isn't yet worth the $100 it costs and it's unfair for gamers to be forced to subsidize under-developed tech, but now the Kinect's locked up potential is being pushed aside. The Xbox is turning into "just another console" in a world that already has a PS4, and gaming PCs to boot.
Just don't forget the dream
But who am I to criticize the ins and outs of a business plan? Will Kinect-less Xbox One bundle money help fund Illumiroom research? Will enterprise sales of a Start Menu-sporting Windows 8.1 help support the development of a Windows 9 that executes on the post-PC premise in a way that Windows 8 never could? Is this just a strategic withdrawal that will pay off someday? I don't know. I can't know! I can't even pretend to know the nitty-gritty business details.
But what I do know is that as a geek, as a gamer, and as a fan of the future, I am starting to see the awesome Star Trek-computer potential buried beneath the surface of the Xbox One and Windows fade away.
Microsoft's dead-sprint into the world beyond the desktop computer has been frantic at times, messy at others, and down-right absurd every now and then. But it's always been exciting, and these most recent changes look like the tipping point where that might change. And it could lead to a future where a Microsoft addicted to appeasement could lose all the ground its gained.
So please don't give up on the future Microsoft. I'm not ready for this ride to end.