2012 was a year of refinement from Google and Apple, opting to make small changes to their flagship platforms of Android and iOS, as well as their device portfolios. Yet, almost shockingly, the opposite can be said for Microsoft, who instead launched the biggest change to Windows since its inception, as well as brought core redesigns of Windows Phone to market and introduced a competitive tablet OS that works on ARM.

The year of Microsoft began on the 29th of February, with the first consumer-friendly ‘preview’ of Windows 8, with major changes such as the removal of the distinctive Start button, a relic from the days of Windows 95, and “100,000 other changes”, including a new, more friendly Blue-screen of Death (only joking Microsoft fans) and, of course, the new Start screen and Metro Modern UI apps.

On the first day of release, the Windows 8 Consumer Preview brought in a million users, all of whom witnessed the Metro Start screen, an innovative new design language that had previously only been seen on the Windows Phone platform, and probably by a small number of people, and in another minor way on the Xbox 360 console. Not only were the changes, at the core, massive, but the general feedback of the new Start screen was fairly positive, with users, despite the room for improvement, agreeing that this was the future of Microsoft. Metro is Microsoft. There were obviously problems with the preview release, for example the inability to snap two Modern apps in equal-width panes, and also the lack of Office in Windows 8, with Microsoft instead opting to push the legacy software to the classic interface. Confusion with UI like this, such as the Control Panel mixing with the Windows 8 Settings page, was one of the downfalls of the OS, and while it will improve over time, Windows 8 and RT can almost be seen as too little, too late in the face of iOS, despite its stale, yet refined UI and metric-tonne of apps.

The Surface

But while Microsoft had defined what they believed was the appropriate next step for Windows, the company still relied on partners to create this vision in a form that consumers could use. Or so we thought.

On June 29, 2012, Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky, who was at the time President of the Windows and Windows Live Division, showed a packed crowd of flesh-eating tech bloggers the Microsoft Surface, a major product that would, as Sinofsky inferred, disrupt the tablet market. While pricing was up in the air, or as Sinofsky declared it, “comparable to other ARM devices”, the general feedback was again generally positive, with many seeing it as the next step from Microsoft from the Xbox, which is a step away from reliance on partners. It was a small release, only just now being seen in retail and previously only available exclusively online, but it was a comparatively big move from Microsoft, as one could say, a ballsy move, a middle finger to slow partners. And despite its small release, one with mixed reactions, with a majority declaring it not as competitive as once thought with outdated performance and Windows RT issues, it still made a big mark in 2012, possibly single-handedly the biggest in the tablet-landscape, alongside the iPad mini and Nexus 7 (again, please don’t hate me Microsoft fans). Software was no longer separate from hardware. And the experience was better because of it.

After another major release, the ‘Release Preview’, Windows 8 hit the RTM milestone on August 1, with an October 26 release date scheduled. A date it shared with the Microsoft Surface.

The Windows 8 launch

On that day, right here in Australia, as Stewart Wilson and I walked down a blue carpet at the Sydney launch event on the 26th, it was clear that, while creating a brand-new and exciting piece of software, one which we were genuinely excited to see, Microsoft still had a number of issues drawn from it’s attachment to legacy customers, one which will pass, but in the present, is a distraction for their 2012-lineup, and one which has the opposite reaction to Windows Phone 7. But more on that a little later.

While launch confusion was ‘tackled’ at a Q&A, specifically on the lack of a non-upgrade version of the OS, a wall, behind the stage, covering a hands-on area lifted and the biggest worry for Windows 8 was confirmed: hardware was still not on par with the devices Apple and Google had designed. Despite a deliciously awkward keynote (it was still better than anything we’ll be seeing at CES) serving proof that Windows 8 already had a healthy selection of apps, and a refined, completed version of the OS we had first seen at Japan’s Computex conference on July 1, 2011, desirable hardware, apart from Microsoft’s own Surface, had not been delivered by partners. And, at the time of publishing, there still isn’t something you from partners that can stand side-by-side with the market leaders. There were touchscreens, flip tops (laptops with flippy tablet-style form-factors), notebooks, desktops and tablets, yet nothing was striking, or at least not in the way that Apple’s hardware is. Laptops were plasticky, had crappy trackpads and poor design decisions, desktops were big, clunky and lacked thought-out ways to integrate touch, and tablets were, generally, poorly designed in comparison with the iPad or even the Nexus tablets. In fact, if the drivers were available, the only good Windows 8 hardware is an Apple computer or a Surface, which Stewart actually wanted to buy. And while fingers can be pointed, the biggest problem with Windows 8 isn’t to do with Microsoft, but the devices that Windows 8 was on. And if 2013 brings anything, I’m hoping it’s competition in the hardware space from a company without a fruit logo.

Windows Phone

Meanwhile in 2012, as Microsoft had announced earlier in the year, the company released Windows Phone 8, and just days after the launch of Windows 8 on October 29. As usual, the launch wasn’t flawless, despite the support of … Jessica Alba? (pictured). The platform, already serving a small amount of users, suffered, hilariously, from the opposite problem of Windows 8: it lost all legacy components. Windows Phone 7 users were told at the unveiling in June that they would not be receiving the update, instead getting a boring homescreen tweak and an obsolete handset, despite some phones being under 6-months old with the news. While it didn’t cause a major outcry, probably due to the limited amount of people who could complain (it is Windows Phone after all), it did somewhat sour the reliability of Microsoft, and could be seen as another reason for the continued lack of success with Windows Phone as a brand, despite the 18-month update promise of Phone 8. But 8 wasn’t all bad news, and infact, was really good news. Windows Phone 8 finally brought the platform into 2012, with support for big screens, fast processors and, combined, damn nice hardware. There’s also NFC, Xbox Music replacing Zune and Skype that actually works. At the core, native apps were now possible, with it also being made easier to port apps between tablet and desktop to phone. However, the lack of Windows Phone apps wasn’t fixed, with no major announcements at the launch-keynote, instead just a relisting of features, such as….Kid’s Corner. And…multitasking. No Instagram. No real Spotify. (no Google+ *hides*) It’s another sign that Microsoft have used 2012 to catch up to competitors, but they haven’t surpassed them. Devices are great, software is now great, but ecosystem lags because of the now unmatched user base of iOS and Android.

But behind the major releases, Microsoft also made some big changes to their existing structure, including a new-look and new name for Hotmail, now named Outlook, which sports a metro-skin, but features few other changes and still relies on EAS or POP, but not IMAP. New Metro-web services also arrived, such as SkyDrive’s redesign and Contacts, which became People. Calendar is yet to be updated.

Then Zune became Xbox, with the birth of a slightly different Xbox Music service, only changed skin-deep (apart from scan-and-match) and still just streaming in 192kbps WMA. And right now, the big story of the year was the loss of Steven Sinofsky, who, as I said before, was head of the Windows team. And because of this, his departure didn’t exactly inspire confidence in Windows 8, but still brought anticipation for future releases. While we’re yet to, and may never, hear the real reasons behind his exit, it is believed, similar to the sacking of Scott Forstall of Apple, that Sinofsky was a power-junkie, and the stranglehold of power within Windows meant that the melding of Windows Phone and Windows 8 was more challenging than it could have been. But again, the speculation means that, while it was a major change to the behind-the-scenes crew, there is little info on why and where the man is now, apart from a blog which launched today. Hopefully Micrapple is currently being formed as we speak between the disregarded executive duo.

In smaller stories, Microsoft also announced Kinect for Windows, which didn’t see much light of day, and SmartGlass, which also hasn’t really seen much real-world use. Then there’s Halo 4 and a few other changes to the Xbox 360, but really, it’s impossible to say Microsoft’s year was anything but colossal, and I can’t fit everything into this post.

Sinofsky was a power-junkie, creating a barrier between Windows and Microsoft

2012 continued the trend of Microsoft not finding a following for the new, Windows RT, and the old, Windows Phone

The one recurring theme of 2012 for Microsoft, as usual for the current incarnation of the big M, was that the change that Microsoft brought to the table didn’t find a major following. And there were a number of obvious reasons behind the lack of a major following. In many cases, Windows 8, RT and Phone 8 aren’t as revolutionary as they once seemed to a mainstream audience. Really, Windows RT is iOS or Android without an ecosystem, despite the UI which can generally only be appreciated by those who are inside the technology circus, like yourself (since you’re reading an article on a website named TECHGEEK).

While it has a very vocal, yet small fan-base, the sale numbers of Windows 8 computers, RT tablets and Windows Phone devices continue to let Microsoft down, despite, compared to iOS, innovation in a stale marketplace and a major marketing push which. Through Glee-style musical keyboard ads (which seem to have been effective) and some other less-effective campaigns, the brand of Microsoft, in some ways, changed into a modern computing brand that can mix work and play. But through dirty tactics, such as fights against Google, and more fights against Google, and more fights against Google, they showed that they are still big, mean Microsoft. And that, along with attachment to the legacy of Windows, hurt them more than they might think. Nobody likes a cheap ad attacking another company. People instead, if you’re going to attack, want something that’s honest and has something to say. Every attack ad this year didn’t do that.

The failings of Windows can also be to do with the fact that Microsoft is so late to ship, with Windows Phone only this year offering true competition to the likes of the iPhone or any Android flagships and RT only just attacking the iPad. Not only does this small userbase mean there’s a small community of developers, but this small 3rd party ecosystem then means less users, which means there’s no incentive for more developers. It’s like a frustrating circle of life, which is unfortunate as I, for one, would like to see more competition in the fairly boring two-horse race of iOS and Android, Gmail and Hotmail, and Windows vs other platforms. Hopefully Microsoft have caught-up and 2013 will be the year they make a surprise run to first-place. But that’s yet to be seen.