For years, Microsoft’s vision was “[a] computer on every desk, and in every home, running Microsoft software.” But now, Microsoft is a very different company. And with its latest moves in Xbox and Windows, Microsoft’s new vision is clear: “Windows everywhere, even without a single PC in the home.”
That shift in strategy has been years in the making. You can trace it back to a change in leadership, literally. Where former CEO Steve Balmer seemed focused on putting a Windows device in every hand, current CEO Satya Nadella moved away from Windows hardware sales and towards a Cloud-focused strategy. That shouldn’t be a real surprise; Nadella was the executive vice president of Microsoft’s cloud and enterprise group.
But take a look at Microsoft’s recent 365 announcement and the direction it’s taking Xbox, and it’s easy to see a future where the average person doesn’t own a PC anymore. Instead, you’ll fire up Windows for productivity and gaming from whatever hardware you already own—be it an Android phone, an iPad, a Raspberry Pi, or perhaps even a Playstation someday. And it all boils down to a Cloud-First strategy, which in many ways started with Xbox.
Xbox in the Cloud Was Just the Start
One of the best gaming subscriptions you can buy right now is Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. It comes with hundreds of free games direction from Microsoft, EA, and more. You get to download and play them to your heart’s content on Xbox or PC so long as you subscribe. But even if you don’t own an Xbox or even a gaming PC, you can still reap its benefits.
That’s because Game Pass Ultimate also comes with Cloud Gaming. With Cloud Gaming, you can play Xbox games on nearly any device you own. If you’re on Android, you install an app. If you’re on Windows, iPhone, iPad, you can open up Chrome, Edge, or Safari browser and load the Xbox Cloud Gaming site.
Microsoft already did the heavy lifting to make controllers compatible with those devices, even if you’re using a browser. And your device doesn’t need to be powerful. While smartphones and tablets have come a long way, they don’t have the chops to play an Xbox Series X game. Most laptops can’t, either. But Cloud Gaming takes care of that problem.
Your device connects to an Xbox Series X somewhere else in the world, and that console does all the hard work. It’s a lot like playing a movie through Netflix even though your TV doesn’t have a built-in DVD player. And just like Netflix, the main bottleneck is the speed of your internet. The faster your internet, the better the experience. Any other hardware you might have, like a gaming controller or nice screen, helps too. But Microsoft already implemented touch controls in some games, so it’s not absolutely necessary. Your phone or tablet is enough.
And now Microsoft is working on bringing those same benefits to the desktop world.
Windows 365 Ushers In the Future of Computing
Sometimes the best “high-end” features come to us through the world of gaming, like the drive for 4K screens or HDR colors. Other times though, you can look to the world of business to see the next innovation that might make its way into your world. Usually, new technology comes at a high price that the average person can’t or won’t spend. Large SSD drives, for example, were once something you’d only find in a business setting but now come standard in many laptops.
To that end, Microsoft announced Windows 365, a subscription service that lets businesses create Cloud PCs for employees. For businesses that deal with company laptops (and perhaps smartphones and tablets), it’s potentially a huge win. Laptops need to be secured, maintained, updated, upgraded, and collected when an employee leaves a company. In today’s remote and hybrid work world, all of that is even more difficult.
Asking an employee to “bring your own device” (BYOD) often isn’t a good option because the employee might not even have a Windows laptop or a laptop powerful enough to run the right programs. And BYOD devices introduce security issues while also reducing company control. Securely locked down laptops and desktops are annoying for the user, but they also can prevent ransomware attacks and unapproved tools that might compromise protected data. That’s harder to accomplish with BYOD laptops.
With Windows 365, you get the best of both worlds. The business doesn’t have to hand out or maintain hardware, and employees can use whatever devices make them happy. Whether it’s a laptop, desktop, smartphone, or tablet, the employee will open a browser and log into an employee center to find a virtual Windows Desktop. We don’t know the full pricing yet, but one level of the subscription plan offers a Cloud PC with two virtual CPUs, 4GB of RAM, and just 128GB of storage for $31 a month.
That’s actually a very competitive price compared to similar offerings from other companies. For $372 a year, you get the equivalent of a low-powered PC, and those specs are pretty in line with a $400 PC . And if Microsoft can bring the price down more, or if its higher-end cloud PCs stay in a relatively affordable area, it could change the face of PCs, especially at the low end.
How You Could Benefit from a Cloud PC
One hard truth about Microsoft is that the company is terrible at building an OS for inexpensive devices. Think back to every netbook. ARM tablet or Intel Celeron Laptop that ever ran Windows, and you’ll know what I mean. Unlike iPadOS or ChromeOS, if you don’t get decently powerful specs for your Windows device, it will run like sludge.
But that fact puts Microsoft at a disadvantage. Chromebooks and iPads are affordable AND run well, even when they have less RAM and weaker processors. If you have just $400 to spend on a device, an iPad or a Chromebook is a good choice, but a Windows laptop just isn’t. And that means Microsoft misses out on a large spectrum of users.
Because these days, most people don’t need a powerful desktop capable of running AAA games or intense video editing. And even those who would like to have a powerful desktop might not be able to afford it. Or even find the parts to build one. In the business and school world, multiply that expense by all the employees or teachers and students who need a laptop or a desktop.
Worse yet, unless you have a specific need (like a work from home job), it’s harder and harder to justify buying a smartphone, and a tablet, and a laptop or desktop, especially if you already own a gaming console. A Cloud PC could bypass all of those problems.
You could run Windows on your existing devices that aren’t normally powerful enough to run Windows well. That could be your phone, your tablet, or just about anything else that has a browser. Theoretically, you could run Microsoft’s Cloud PC service from an Xbox or a PS4 (the PS5 lacks a browser currently). And in the months you don’t need a Windows PC? Cancel the subscription. Then pick it back up when you do need it.
Microsoft could even take things further and blend its Cloud PC and Cloud Xbox endeavors. If the company wanted to, it could easily offer a subscription that gives you both simultaneously. If you’re a PlayStation fan, you could try out that Xbox game you were interested in, or find out if the PC port of your favorite PlayStation game really does look more amazing.
Now imagine this future for the moment: You’re out and about for your normal day, and you arrive home. You want to play a few games, so you dock your phone next to your TV. With a quick open of an app, your phone is now an Xbox, which frees up your media center because you don’t have a large Xbox Series X taking up room.
Later, you need to get a bit of work done, so you head to an office space. Again you dock your phone, and this time it becomes a full-fledged computer connected to your monitor, keyboard, and mouse. At some point down the road, you realize you missed a small detail. That’s ok; you can pull up the same instance of your Cloud PC on your iPad and make a correction. You don’t have to worry about maintaining a tower or providing space for a console you only use sometimes. Your smartphone and your tablet become what you need them to be when you need them to be.
Other companies have promised all that, and even today, you can sign up for “cloud PC subscriptions.” But most “phone becomes a PC” solutions don’t work well and don’t provide a full experience—you can’t do Photoshop or game on them. And most cloud PC companies are either expensive or don’t provide a reliable service.
Microsoft has the advantage of being large enough to achieve reliability. And it can change Windows to make Cloud PCs work better; other companies can’t do that. The only thing that remains to be seen is if Microsoft WILL do it. If and when Microsoft makes Cloud PCs an affordable alternative for everyone else, that might be the death of the desktop. And its rebirth.