Microsoft in 2012: New Windows, Surface and a major shift

December 26, 2012

Microsoft followed through on quite a few of its New Year’s resolutions in 2012, taking big steps to play in the mobile marketplace and revamp its Windows operating system. The company released new phone, tablet and computer operating systems and doubled down on the tile-based, touch-friendly formats of that it first introduced on its Windows Phone operating system. Here’s a look at some of the highlights (and lowlights) of Microsoft in 2012.

Windows 8: Microsoft completely updated its flagship Windows operating system in 2012 with an October launch that saw the end of the start button. Windows 8, built with touch screens in mind, is designed to work equally well on tablets and computers. Microsoft also released Windows RT for tablets, essentially a lighter version of Windows 8.

So far, Windows 8 hasn’t spurred greater PC sales and has been met with mixed reviews. The somewhat bifurcated system runs some programs in a more traditional Windows environment, while others will only run in the new, slick layout. The company promoted its new products heavily throughout the holiday season -- this quarter’s sales figures will tell if the push was worth it.

Microsoft Surface: The company surprised the industry by jumping into the hardware market with the Surface tablet. The move caused some friction among Microsoft’s hardware partners, who were planning big pushes for their own Windows tablets.

But Microsoft’s goal was to show off all that its new software could do -- and take aim at Apple’s iPad. The Surface has a keyboard cover and productivity-focused software such as Microsoft Office, which could help the company take a run at the business and student market.

Windows Phone 8: Microsoft also released a new version of its phone software, Windows Phone 8, which it hopes will help it compete with the juggernaut mobile operating systems of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The phone system is also designed to work with the company’s tablet and computer operating systems, allowing Microsoft to present a more complete ecosystem to consumers.

The company still has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to Apple and Google, and will be locked into a battle with Research in Motion for the third-place spot. So far, Microsoft’s partnership with Nokia has produced phones with good reviews but lukewarm sales.

“Devices and Services”: In a shareholder letter, chief executive Steve Ballmer said that Microsoft would pivot its focus from hardware to “devices and services.”

Ballmer said the company will still “work with a vast ecosystem of partners” on Windows PCs, tablets and phones. But he made it clear that the company is also prepared to make “specific devices for specific purposes,” meaning that it will likely follow the model it set with the Surface with other devices in the future.

Xbox dominates: Microsoft’s Xbox console continued a long run at the top this year, even managing to beat Nintendo’s new Wii U console in its debut month. Microsoft was also aggressive about adding video and television content to its Xbox Live service, as people actually use the Xbox more for video than for gaming. In June, the company also announced “Smart Glass,” which lets users interact with their Xbox on mobile devices and Windows computers.

Despite its success, the Xbox 360’s run is expected to come to an end soon. The console itself is several years old, and many expect that Microsoft will offer an updated version in the next couple of years.

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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