One OS or three, Windows still doesn’t add up

Microsoft released its 4th quarter earnings yesterday, and despite a big hit from the Nokia acquisition, the news was generally good. Microsoft’s cloud services (Azure, Office 365, and the like) are starting to take off, traditional server side businesses (SQL Server, Hyper-V, etc.) continue to do well, and Microsoft as an enterprise company continues to be healthy. The news isn’t all bad on the consumer side of the equation, either, despite the hit taken due to the acquisition of Nokia. Bing continues to gain share (although mostly at the expense of Yahoo!), and according to Satya Nadella, might even be profitable by 2016.

The big news, however, coming yesterday was a mention in the accompanying conference call where CEO Satya Nadella spoke of a unified Windows operating system:

We will streamline the next version of Windows from three operating systems into one single converged operating system for screens of all sizes

The mention got a lot of press, but as Mary Jo Foley points out, “one Windows” doesn’t really mean “one Windows”. For Microsoft watchers, the news isn’t really news at all, as Microsoft has been inching toward a single development platform ever since Steve Ballmer let Steven Sinofsky go and formed his “One Microsoft” vision. A single core, with a single team behind it, and a unified Store with a unified developer platform, yes. A single Windows SKU across all devices, well, ummm, no.

But the real issue here, especially for the modern developer in a “mobile first, cloud first” world, isn’t about Windows at all. As much as Microsoft likes to tout its billion plus install base, modern developers aren’t writing for Windows, especially the Windows of the past, which consumes the vast majority of that base. Instead, they’re writing largely for Android, and iOS. While a single unified developer platform under Windows is better than the alternative, it doesn’t really begin to address the elephant sitting squarely in the middle of the room. Developers, startups, and consumer facing enterprises aren’t writing for Windows (or at least not Windows first, or second), no matter how unified the platform is.

Microsoft is continuing to push its services across platforms, working hard to bring Microsoft offerings like OneDrive, OneNote, Office 365, and more to Android and iOS. Today, Microsoft updated its Skype for Android app with the ability to connect your phone address book automatically to Skype. But there still exists a large gap where apps created for Android won’t run on Windows, forcing Microsoft to beg developers to port their apps to Windows/Windows Phone, something they have been largely unwilling to do without some kind of unsustainable incentives.

Recently, rumors were swirling that Microsoft was working on a way to bring Android apps to Windows Phones, and until Microsoft figures out a way to work the cross platform angle from both sides, Windows is going to remain, unified platform or not, a distant third in consumer facing app development. That 14% is looming large, and Microsoft needs not only to try to grow that number, or get their services on the 86% of devices not running Windows, but also to embrace that huge base of apps, written on other platforms, within Windows. Until then, one OS or three, it’s not really going to matter much.