We all hoped that 2021 would signal a return to normalcy, but
that never quite happened. Microsoft's hardware teams enjoyed
strong success this year. But for Windows, software, and services?
Not so much.
Microsoft's year in review has become a holiday tradition of
sorts here at PCWorld—recapping Microsoft's strengths, failures,
and moments that made us scratch our heads and mutter, Seriously,
what. So if you enjoyed our recap of 2020, grab a glass of holiday cheer
and settle down.
2021. What a year, huh?
WIN: Hybrid work
A generally pathetic sports team like the University of
California Golden Bears can salvage an entire season's worth of
futility with a win over a key opponent, such as Stanford. And
Microsoft made what wasn't the happiest of years into a success
with an ongoing, enormous win: Microsoft continued to facilitate
working from home, and arguably led the way in doing so.
This was still often
the way we attended conferences during 2021.Microsoft /
Some may prefer Google's Workspace, Zoom, or Slack, but
Microsoft Teams has clearly evolved into an effective meeting and
videoconferencing tool as well as a collaboration solution.
Microsoft has invested heavily into partnerships for Teams hardware as well as some
very thoughtful ways of integrating in-office
work with remote workers. Microsoft's online conferences continued to set the bar.
Microsoft 365 is now almost a must-have for businesses and
consumers alike, because of the value all of these add. It's been
an enormous success for Microsoft as a whole.
FAIL: Microsoft Teams
It's clear, though, that the victory party got a little out of
hand. Some inebriated Microsoft M365 exec probably shouted Let's
make everyone use Teams!! and Microsoft Teams for Consumers was born. Then
some madman mocked up a Windows 11 taskbar with Teams Chat
integrated right into it. That was pushed to production,
too! Only after the hangovers had worn off did someone realize that
no, no one actually wants to use Teams in their personal lives.
Unfortunately, by then the damage had been done.
Microsoft found the
only person excited about using Teams for their personal life for
this shot. Image: Microsoft
Microsoft's social font-picking experiment
In April, Microsoft tried out a bizarre social experiment,
letting users vote on which new font would be used in 2022 within
Office, Windows, and more. Microsoft encouraged users to lobby for
Seaford (organic and asymmetric forms!), Skeena (a humanist sans
serif), Bierstadt, and more, probably hoping a heated debate would
polarize the Internet. Instead, there was… well, nothing. How do we
go on without proper closure?
The smart money was on
Skeena winning it all. Image: Microsoft
Months before Facebook rebranded itself as Meta and made
metaverse the most overused term of 2021, there was Microsoft Mesh, Microsoft's virtual-reality
platform and the surprise reveal at its Microsoft Ignite
conference. Looking back, it's interesting to see how Mesh evolved
over just this year: in March, when Microsoft launched Mesh, Microsoft technical
fellow Alex Kipman characterized Mesh as a virtual-meeting
platform, implying that the future of meetings was virtual
Meta then adopted the same approach, to general disgust. By
November, Microsoft's vision of the metaverse had been recast
as virtual Teams avatars in preparation for a preview to be
released in 2022.
FAIL: Windows 11
To be fair, we're biased: PCWorld's review of Windows 11 concluded that
Windows 11 was unnecessary, in part because Windows 10 is still an
excellent operating system, and in part because Windows 11 launched
with many, many rough edges. Statcounter, however, doesn't even
show Windows 11 in its desktop OS market-share list. AdDuplex says
Windows 11's share is 8.6 percent. LanSweeper says that it's 0.2 percent. For whatever
reason, Windows 11 hasn't taken off.
Windows 11: the most
controversial product Microsoft has released in recent memory.
While Windows 11 may not be succeeding yet, Windows itself is.
Microsoft probably cares as much as more about Microsoft 365
subscription revenue and monthly users of Edge and Bing than
anything else. To Microsoft's bean-counters, Windows is just a
gateway to those services.
FAIL: Windows 11's
It's fair to say that we have some TPM PTSD we're still working through. For a few
weeks, Microsoft swung back and forth on exactly which PCs could upgrade to Windows 11, and
users tried to figure out what the hardware requirements of Windows 11 were, and
what they needed to do if their PC didn't meet them.
Microsoft may have had the best of intentions in excluding millions
of PCs for security reasons, but all Microsoft had to do was to
simply sit down with reporters and clearly communicate what was
going on, what consumers could expect, and the thinking behind it.
This was clearly Microsoft's worst communications debacle in
years, and we can only hope that some senior executive was called
on the carpet for it.
FAIL: Windows 11's
lack of browser choice
Microsoft Edge is a solid browser, adding new features all the time — which is why
Microsoft screwed this up so badly. Windows 11 makes it a royal
pain to set up a third-party browser as the default, robbing users
of the choice between any of the excellent browsers that are available
to Windows users, from Brave to Vivaldi. If that decision wasn't
legally anti-competitive, it sure felt like it. Even a way to redirect Edge-specific links was
blocked. Taking steps to reverse the decision via a Windows 11 preview is a small step, but it's
one that should have never been made in the first place.
Microsoft has made
selecting a third-party browser as the default unnecessarily
difficult. Image: Mark Hachman / IDG
FAIL: Windows 10X
As we now know, Windows 10X was rolled into Windows 11. What we
didn't know when Windows 10X leaked in January was that it was
going to replace Windows 10 — it would have made a drab but
functional replacement for Windows 10 Home in S Mode (Windows 10 S)
in Chromebooks. But nope, Windows 10X evolved into Windows 11, and
the true replacement for Windows 10 S will be…
11 SE and the Surface Laptop SE
Windows 11 SE and the complementary Surface Laptop SE honestly felt like Microsoft
saying well, what the hell — let's just throw this at the
wall and see if it sticks. Remember, there is still a Windows 11 Home in S Mode, and Windows 10 S was
originally designed to compete with Chrome OS. Now it's Windows 11
SE, and the Surface Laptop SE is now the new Chromebook killer.
Good luck with that, folks.
Windows 11 – Widgets =
Windows 11 SE. Image: Microsoft
WIN: Surface Pro 7+
and Surface Pro 8
It was a little surprising to see Microsoft announce two new
tablets during 2021, even if the Surface Pro 7+ was technically for
businesses only. But even though both debuted among a crop of the
best Windows tablets we've seen in years, our
review of the Surface Pro 7+ as well as our Surface Pro 8 review simply demonstrated that
Microsoft continues to be at the top of its game where full-sized
Windows tablets are concerned.
WIN: Surface Laptop Studio
While we may have expected a new Surface Book, Microsoft's
Surface Laptop Book Pro fusion includes an impressive pull-forward
design with relatively high-performance CPU and GPU options, as our
Surface Laptop Studio review shows. Can we
continue the push forward and plan out an Xbox gaming laptop for 2022?
Laptop Studio was the company's most intriguing Surface since the
Surface Studio. Image: Mark Hachman / IDG
WIN: Surface Laptop 4
For the most part, Microsoft's generally strong Surface showing
continued to offset Microsoft's struggles in software and services.
Our review of the Surface Laptop 4 was a success
both for AMD's Ryzen processor as well as Microsoft itself. Note to
Microsoft's design team: deepen the key travel. Microsoft's
keyboards were once the best in the industry, and now they're
FAIL: Surface Duo 2
I kept my personal SIM in the Surface Duo 2 folding phone well
after we published PCWorld's Surface Duo 2 review, but today I
simply find myself instinctively grabbing other phones instead.
Surprisingly, it was the Duo 2's UI that pushed me over the edge.
Not the bugs, but simply how the phone keeps separate columns of
apps on either screen, and there's too much pain wading through
them to find what I want. In all, the Surface Duo 2 was a decent
effort that fell short.
Duo approached the concept of a foldable phone from a different
angle, with two screens. While it improved over the
first-generation Duo, it probably won't go down as one of
Microsoft's success stories. Image Mark Hachman / IDG.
WIN: Xbox Game Pass
While you still can't find Microsoft's Xbox Series X game
console in any reasonable quantities, two things soothed the blow:
the availability of the affordable Xbox Series S, and the success of
Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass. Microsoft's game subscription is
basically a must-have by this point, allowing gamers day-one access
to both Microsoft's AAA titles (for the PC and the Xbox!) as well
as a number of indie games. Here's how to get Game Pass for cheap.
WIN: Windows 365
This is absolutely a gut call, but I suspect that the groundwork
behind Windows 365 (Windows in the cloud) will
eventually pay off. We already have streaming sticks, and some way
of tucking a PC in your pocket and plugging it into an available
HDMI port seems like a viable future. The question will be how
users type, touch, and interact with Windows, all problems that the
modalities maestros at Microsoft will eventually solve.
WIN: The Financial Modeling World Cup, aka the Excel
I never expected that tuning in on a Saturday morning to watch
financial modelers work through Microsoft Excel challenges would be
the most wholesome Microsoft experience of 2021, but it absolutely
was. There's a certain intersection of meme culture, pessimism,
sportsmanship, and good-natured trolling that defines modern
college football fandom, and the FMWC felt like a bunch of fans who
had collectively tuned into the best game of the day. Click on the
YouTube links in our FMWC story and you'll see what we mean.
The FMWC had everything: nerd culture; insightful, live
commentary (Tim Heng!), and even a knowledgeable fanbase who
clearly enjoyed themselves. This was Excel as esports, and it was
So that was 2021, from Microsoft's perspective — a lot of
head-scratching decisions, some rage, but then joy where none was
expected. Here's to a better 2022 for all of us!