A top Microsoft exec on working with Apple, competing with Google's Chromebooks, and the future of Windows

Microsoft cvp joe belfiore build 2017MicrosoftMicrosoft Corporate VP of Windows Joe Belfiore on stage at Build 2017 in Seattle, Washington.

Microsoft has been busy lately.

At its Build developer conference last week, the software giant announced Windows 10 would be getting new integrations with Android and iPhone. Earlier this month, it unveiled a new Surface Laptop along with a new version of its flagship operating system — dubbed Windows 10 S — to power it.

Oh, and next week Microsoft is expected to unveil a new Surface tablet.

The moves are all connected, Microsoft CVP of Windows Joe Belfiore, who also serves as an advisor to the company’s education business, told Business Insider at the Build conference last week.

People use different types of devices, not just Windows PCs, Belfiore said. If Windows wants to win, it has to play nicely with non-Windows gadgets like iPhones and Android smartphones. Meanwhile, Windows 10 S’s mission is to win over tech-savvy students, who are already living this PC-plus-smartphone lifestyle.

“Thematically, this is us jumping in to support this multi-device world,” Belfiore said.

In the interview, Belfiore talked about competing with Google, improving the Windows Store, and how Microsoft convinced Apple to make a new version of iTunes for its app marketplace.

Versus Google

A big reason for the success of Google’s Chromebooks is they’re cheap and easy for schools to manage. And because the Chrome OS is little more than the Chrome web browser in a fancy shell, they punch above their weight performance-wise and don’t get bogged down by software running in the background.

This speaks to a historical weakness for Windows. Back in 2007, an anonymous Microsoft executive infamously referred to the pre-installed software on new Windows PCs as “craplets” — junk that slows your computer down and makes its performance degrade over time. And while it’s something that’s certainly gotten better, that kind of “software rot,” as it’s called, is still a problem.

Belfiore is kinder than the exec of a decade ago — PC manufacturers are “well intentioned,” he said, and merely trying to pre-load useful apps for their customers. Still, going forward, he’d like Windows 10 devices to “appear to all their customers as highly reliable and high performance and non-degrading.”

Acer chromebook r13AcerGoogle Chromebooks, like this Acer-made model, are low-cost laptops designed to deliver a web browser and little else.

Windows 10 S is meant to address take a step in that direction and offer an experience comparable to Chrome OS. It checks off many of the same boxes — faster boot-up time, easy IT department management, and no software rot. Windows 10 S devices will run as smoothly on day 100 as on day 1, Microsoft likes to say. And it will be available on sub-$US300 laptops.

But unlike Chromebooks, those Windows 10 S laptops, which are targeted at the eduction market, will sport all the benefits of Windows — including full versions of Microsoft Office, the familiar Start menu interface, and soon, enhanced support for all the devices they’re already using.

The big tradeoff

All of those benefits in Windows 10 S do come with a notable cost. To ensure that no viruses, malware or pernicious “craplets” affect system performance and ruin your experience, Microsoft will only let Windows 10 S users install software they have downloaded from the Windows Store. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s app market lacks several of the most popular apps and lags far behind Apple’s App Store or Google Play in the total number of apps available.

But it’s only a matter of time before the store reaches its full potential, Belfiore said. Windows 10 isn’t yet two years old, and as it grows, it’s going to attract more apps to the store, he argued.

“Windows 10 is pretty young,” he said. “You’ve got to have scale to get engagement.”

Windows 10 S will play an important role in Microsoft trying to reach that scale, Belfiore said. Because it’s going into schools, which Microsoft sees as a growth market, it could get a lot of young, app-savvy customers using Windows. And because Windows 10 S only lets users download apps from the Windows Store, developers who want to reach those students might be convinced to start making apps for it.

That dynamic explains why Apple recently decided to list iTunes in the Windows Store, Belfiore said. In order for students using Windows 10 S to be able to buy music or movies from iTunes or access the Apple Music streaming service, it needed to work with Microsoft to get the full version of iTunes into the Windows Store.

So while Windows Store may be an also-ran today, its ability to attract apps like iTunes and Spotify is a sign of things to come, he said.

“We’re starting to get to the tipping point,” Belfiore said.

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