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Microsoft's Grand Unification Plan For PCs, Phones, Tablets

Redmond is looking to ditch its scattershot approach to new platforms and deliver an end-user experience that is, for better or worse, uniquely Microsoft across all devices.
"Despite the success of Android, I think the fragmentation issues are starting to bubble to the surface in the development community," said Tim O'Brien, general manager of Microsoft's Platform Strategy group, in an interview at the Microsoft campus. "The fact that there are some hundreds of different ports of Android running on over 200 different handsets is problematic for developers."

Microsoft's decision to build Internet Explorer 9 and future versions of IE around Web standards like HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS could give developers a leg up when trying to build apps that can run on a plethora of hardware types. "Nobody uses one device anymore," O'Brien said. "Having seven versions of your application is something that some software providers may choose to do. They may choose to build out the development stack that can have seven different ports for this app. Or you can take the Web standards approach to say, 'Hey, anything with HTML5 compliance or any Web-standards browser can render in the browser on that device.'"

O'Brien said the standards-based approach also gives developers an easier way to build cross-platform apps for tablets and smartphones. "What we decided to do with HTML5 is give people the best of both worlds, which is the ability to use HTML and JavaScript to build applications in a way that taps into the native capability of the device," he said.

Whether all that's enough to get Microsoft back into the mobile race, while maintaining its dominance on the desktop, remains to be seen. If it does manage to create a common user experience across all Windows devices, critics will argue that Microsoft has merely done what Apple achieved years ago. And Google will surely incorporate many of the more popular attributes of Android into its Chrome OS, scheduled for release on commercial laptops from Samsung and others as early as this week.

Still, Microsoft's customers, partners, and developers should welcome the fact that the company seems ready to abandon its Sybil-inspired approach to new markets and deliver an experience across all platforms that will be uniquely Microsoft and instantly recognizable as such.

"You have to think through all the pieces," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, also during an interview in Redmond. The next logical step in the campaign for uniformity could be for Microsoft to become more of a device maker itself, beyond the Xbox. Ballmer said there's no immediate plan for doing that—but he didn’t rule it out: "Whether you have to bend the sheet metal and do all that is yet another question."