Microsoft has unveiled its own wish list for its OEM partners in 2017, highlighting the features the company wants companies like HP, Dell, and Asus to emphasize and the hardware designs it thinks are most likely to be attractive to customers. Some of the design emphases make sense — 2-in-1 convertible device shipments have grown over the past few years and represent one of the few expanding PC markets, even though they haven’t grown quickly enough to make up for the overall decline in PC sales.
Windows Hello: This is Microsoft’s biometric authentication system that can allow users to log into a device using a fingerprint or facial recognition rather than a password. The problem with positioning Windows Hello as a major hero feature is it “improves” a relatively minor facet of device usage. If you need to log into a device 10-15x per day, biometric authentication may save you a few seconds compared with simply typing a password. Biometric authentication suffers from its own security issues, however, and generally isn’t covered by the same 5th Amendment protections that protect citizens from having to reveal their passwords. The security-conscious might prefer to have a device that offers both biometric and password protection, but precious few people are going to purchase a new device because it offers enhanced biometric authentication options.
Cortana: Microsoft really wants you to be using its data collection and monetization digital assistant, Cortana. At WinHEC this year, the company detailed plans to enhance Cortana’s capabilities with Near-Field and Far-Field support, as well as Wake on Voice capabilities. Near-Field at greater distance and Far-Field both require advanced microphones with additional capabilities over and above simple ultra-short-range communication.
I do not recommend or use any voice assistant technology, including Siri, Google Now, Amazon Echo, or Cortana. I’m personally not interested in handing every detail of my life over to corporations, and companies like Samsung have demonstrated device security and information protection are far too lax for me to feel comfortable trusting these products. Setting that aside, these upgrades to Cortana’s capabilities will undoubtedly improve the service — but again, is anyone going to buy a high-end premium laptop solely because you can talk to it from farther away? Likely not.
Windows Ink: Windows Ink is Microsoft’s term for the enhanced stylus capabilities it introduced with the Anniversary Update. These features are only available on touch-enabled systems, and they can be useful in the right contexts — but again, stylus support and touchscreen drawing are niche features, not mainstream draws. Like the Surface Dial and Surface Studio, these capabilities are great for specific markets and meaningless outside of them.
Microsoft is having the same problem Intel and AMD have had, albeit in a somewhat different form: Absent compelling performance improvements, the company is stuck trying to come up with situational software updates that can drive engagement. But just as Intel and AMD’s overall level of power efficiency improvement over the past few years depends a great deal on your workload, Microsoft’s ability to offer general improvements to users is largely task-specific.
Microsoft’s other problem is its operating systems have matured to the point where they offer most of the features we used to buy new hardware trying to achieve. One of Windows XP’s major selling points was it could be kept up and running for weeks at a time. In the pre-XP era, consumer OS uptime was generally measured in days if you were lucky. I’ve been in this business long enough to remember writing guides for how to do an in-place reinstall of Windows to clean the garbage out of the registry and system files without losing any data. That’s crazy, if you step back and think about it. System stability was so miserable, it made sense to tell people to reinstall their entire operating system at least once a year, unless they literally installed nothing and never caught a virus. It used to be much simpler to introduce new PC features, because PCs used to lack a great many of the capabilities we now expect out-of-the-box.
Windows 10’s support for DirectX 12 is the closest thing we’ve seen to a performance game-changer in years, and gamers have rewarded that improvement by moving to Windows 10 fairly aggressively — Windows 10 64-bit is the OS used by 48.97% of gamers as of December 2016, according to the Steam Hardware Survey. The next most-popular flavor, Windows 7 64-bit, is used by 29.02% of the market. Clearly, consumers are willing to move to Windows 10 when they perceive an advantage to doing so. Microsoft’s problem is, it hasn’t come up with a way to channel those improvements into the mass consumer market. Biometric authentication, Cortana, and stylus support may help move a few premium machines when existing equipment wears out, but it’s not going to spur new hardware adoption.