YES, it’s time for more Microsoft bashing. (Or astute analysis, depending on your point of view.)
A 20/20 Vista
Sometime around a dozen years ago, Microsoft was hyping their next big planned Windows version, code-named “Longhorn.” And it sounded really good (e.g. a database in a file system!). But then the really great-sounding, revolutionary features of the OS were cancelled. And then the whole release was delayed. And delayed some more.
When it finally came out as Vista, it was little more than some fancy OS glitz intended to make the user interface look as nice as Mac OS X. Plus a bunch of new bugs and issues that made potential buyers, especially businesses, shy away from it and stick with the aging (but functional) Windows XP.
Microsoft now has mostly recovered with Windows 7. But that took a few more years after Vista.
What should Microsoft have done? Simple: They should have channeled the great majority (say, 80%) of their Windows and Office profits into advancing the Windows OS. This would have meant:
Releasing Longhorn/Vista on time
Developing the great features that Longhorn was originally hyped to include (and making them work really well)
Releasing Longhorn/Vista as a clean, bug-free, highly functional product (at least as much as Windows 7 is today)
In stages perhaps, but relentlessly: dragging Windows into the future. One-by-one, eliminating all the old legacy crap from the days of the IBM PC and MS-DOS. Windows should have become a thoroughly modern, strong-and-quick-as-Unix, processor-independent OS. Isolating old, x86, legacy apps in a sandbox, then slowly phasing them out.
Did they do any of that? No, pretty much none of it. If they had, then they would have won. Apple still could have been a big success with iPod, iPhone, and iPad, and some other things. Google still could have been a big success in search, web-mail, and some other things. But it would have all worked tightly with Windows. And everyone would use Windows without even seriously considering moving to anything else (like the Mac). And the Windows legacy would go on for decades to come.
Throwing It All Away
Instead, Microsoft blew (and continues to blow) untold billions and billions on an endless string of me-too copies of other companies’ products, plus a few highly speculative innovations of their own, that all tanked miserably:
PlaysForSure Music Stores (iTunes Music Store)
PDMI (iPod dock connector) — not a Microsoft product, but a consortium in which Microsoft was a leading participant
Surface (Update: When this article was written, “Surface” referred to Microsoft’s unreleased, coffee-table-like, big-touch-screen device, not a mobile tablet.)
Windows Live Search (Google Search)
Bing (Google Search)
Bing Maps (Google Maps)
Zune Marketplace (iTunes Store)
Windows Mobile 6.5 (iPhone)
Windows Phone 7 (iPhone)
Windows Phone Marketplace (iPhone App Store)
Windows 7 slates (iPad)
Windows 8 tablets (iPad) — not yet released
Windows 8 App Store (iOS App Store) — or whatever it’s going to be called when the lawsuit resolves
Windows Phone 8 (iPhone) — not yet released
Microsoft retail stores (Apple retail stores) — extremely close copy in both form and locations
In short, Microsoft has behaved over the past decade as if (1) Windows was an impregnable, permanent success that needed only half-hearted, mostly cosmetic, periodic touch-ups, and (2) any non-Microsoft successes in the computing industry were an intolerable threat that must be attacked.
The Total Victory That Never Was
Back in the late 1980s and throughout most of the 1990s, it seemed that Microsoft had inherited a naturally dominant position in the industry. All Microsoft needed to do was make me-too copies of any other companies’ successes, and everyone would naturally flock to the Microsoft copy, because people want to side with a winner. And that, of course, would make the Microsoft product the winner, so it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The original company’s product would become a has-been, could-have-been, niche item, or maybe just disappear altogether. And Microsoft would win the lion’s share of everything.
After the OS/platform shake-up of the early 1980s, a lot of people in the computer industry, I think, believed that due to the high degree to which computing products need to interact, it was natural and inevitable that one company would emerge as the big victor. And — whether by merit, fate, or some combination — that company just happened to be Microsoft.
I think that Steve Ballmer, and a lot of other high people at Microsoft, and a lot of people on their board who could replace Ballmer but consistently don’t, are just, plain in love with the idea described in the above two paragraphs. And they can’t bear the thought that it isn’t true, and maybe never really was. So Ballmer’s Microsoft just keeps doggedly cranking out me-too products that flop. And of course, they know those products are flopping, but they think they have to keep doing it until it starts working again. Because it’s the only vision of computing that they can really tolerate.
You’re Gonna Do What?
It’s hard to see the several-year future of any company — or even the few-year future of a company as secretive as Apple — but Microsoft hard-hypes its plans, so we know pretty much exactly what they’re going to come out with. And that is: Windows 8.
What is Windows 8? It’s a Zune-like, Windows Phone-like, touch-tiles interface called Metro, plus legacy Windows (like Windows 7) running behind it. So two different interfaces will be running at the same time, and you’ll be able to switch between them instantly with some key-press or other action.
Now, right off the bat, there are some big problems with this idea. First, how many people really want to use the Metro tiles interface? It would have been considered revolutionary and compelling if it had come out in 2006 before the iPhone. But today it just looks like a different take on the touch interface — not really better, just different. If the market failure of Windows Phone 7 is any indication, then people don’t really want to use Metro. And Metro is supposed to be the compelling, front-facing, new feature of Windows 8.
Next, is the whole idea of flipping back and forth between Metro and legacy Windows appealing? Who wants to do that, even if Metro was really good? I guess the idea is that you will use legacy Windows only for running some legacy Windows apps that haven’t been rewritten for Metro. But the whole thing looks like a bad stapling of one thing to another. The idea is that Microsoft will use legacy Windows as a stepping stone to get people using Metro; then they’ll want to use Metro tablets and phones.
But that plan can work, even in theory, only if running Metro and Windows at the same time is really a viable possibility. But — despite Microsoft demos to the contrary — it really isn’t.
Windows 8 tablets are going to run just Metro, because:
Legacy Windows doesn’t run on ARM.
Even if Microsoft ported legacy Windows to ARM, most legacy Windows apps wouldn’t run on ARM.
If a tablet used an x86 chip (Atom?) then it might not be competitive with ARM-based tablets in terms of battery life and/or tablet size. And even with Atom, it’s very questionable whether on a tablet, legacy Windows and its apps would run at acceptable speeds, and with acceptable battery consumption.
Trying to use legacy Windows with your finger, and on a screen significantly smaller than even most small laptops, would be barely workable, if at all. (And even that’s assuming an iPad-sized screen — not one of those Kindle Fire-sized screens that have half the area of the iPad screen.)
And Windows laptops and desktop PCs are going to run just legacy Windows, because:
Metro needs a touchscreen, and virtually all desktop and laptop PCs, even those purchased just yesterday, don’t have a touchscreen. Adding one that’s sufficient to work with Metro will increase the cost of these already-bargain-basement computers, putting them at a serious price disadvantage.
Touching the screen of a laptop makes it wobble, and using either a laptop or desktop display screen as a touch-screen makes your arm really tired in short order. Touch-screens need to be hand-held or resting in your lap.
So you see, nobody is going to be running both of these interfaces on the same device. Windows 8 tablets will run the Metro tiles OS, and Windows 8 laptops and desktops will run legacy Windows (version 8).
So Microsoft’s big new product that’s about to come out this summer (at the earliest) is a make-believe demo showing an OS-switching computer that even Microsoft’s ardent fans probably will never own. Metro by itself on a tablet will probably sell about as well as it did on Windows Phone 7. Only legacy Windows 8 running on laptop and desktop PCs has a chance of some success — but only as a replacement for Windows 7 on new computers. And all those businesses that recently (finally) dumped Windows XP for Windows 7? I don’t expect hardly any of them to feel any need at all to upgrade to Windows 8 — do you?
Microsoft’s future prospects are pretty darn dim. And they seem to be getting dimmer every year.
Update 2012.02.02 — added “Soapbox (YouTube)”
Update 2012.02.03 — added “Windows Phone 8 (iPhone) — not yet released”
Update 2012.02.05 — added “Silverlight (Flash)”