By twenty-eight Windows watchers | Monday, March 8, 2010 at 4:03 am
In 1985, almost all PCs sat on desktops, the Internet was a Defense Department research project, and the cell phone revolution had barely gotten underway. It was also the year that Microsoft launched a DOS front-end called Windows 1.0.
Over the past quarter century, Windows has evolved many times, and it will change again in light of Microsoft’s investments in cloud services, mobile platforms, and other new technologies. And as the way people compute and communicate morphs faster than ever, the challenges ahead for Windows are huge.
With that in mind, Technologizer asked some of the industry’s big brains about what Microsoft needs to do to keep its operating system relevant in the years to come. Their advice ranges from merely simplifying the interface to borrowing ideas from other Microsoft products such as the Xbox to giving the OS a complete reboot. Here’s what they (and we) have to say.
–David Worthington, story editor
What to keep Windows relevant? Well, a more liberal policy on Windex, I suppose. Wait, you mean the software?
Ok, I will be honest and say I now mostly use Apple computers and have not used Windows on a constant daily basis in years, since when it was on the computer I used at work. That computer was kind of grimy and could have used some Windex too. But I digress.
I think the point is that to get me back Microsoft needs to really make Windows very different than it is now. I would switch if it nailed a touchscreen version, if I could easily use my top applications in the cloud, if it worked exactly the same across a range of devices. I would also like to see better integration with the devices Windows is on, which is to say, more Apple-like. Trust me, I am not wedded to Apple for life and could be enticed away a lot easier than you might imagine.
Kara Swisher reports on technology at All Things Digital’s Boomtown, and co-hosts and co-produces the Wall Street Journal’s D conference.
Government interference has effectively put a stop to upward integration of Windows, so I think all we’ll see is continued adaptation to new hardware and networking technologies. The next huge shift in home computing is the transition from the cable box to the streaming video player, saving the end user a large monthly subscription fee. Microsoft has known this for years, producing Media Center Editions of Windows way ahead of the curve.
With early innovators now using dedicated hardware such as Roku and Microsoft’s own Xbox to stream videos to their TVs, the time is ripe for Windows to reenter the fray and attempt to become the de-facto standard for home video viewing, either through embedded integration with HDTVs themselves or easy wireless connection to TVs. Home wireless networks are fast enough now that the Windows PC can be located anywhere in the house as long as the TV has a wireless input.
As to the threat from open source software, the problem remains the same as always. With no revenue, there is no money for marketing, sales, or support. All three of those, despite the pipe dreams of software engineers, are required for a product to be successful. Windows in particular requires a huge amount of pre-release testing because it attempts to work with such a wide variety of third-party hardware. That’s expensive.
Richard Brodie, employee #77 at Microsoft, the principal author of Microsoft Word, and once the company’s chief software designer, is also the author of Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Photo by Tony East.
Some things I’d like to see in Windows 8, or future versions:
1. Far better understanding that our computing devices play different roles. I’d love to click a button on the bottom and have my computer switch between an entertainment mode (like Media Center) to a work mode (with Outlook/Gmail/Spreadsheets up) to a collaboration mode (working with Google Wave or Zoho, etc). Right now switching between these various modes is very difficult.
2. I want everything I touch to be socialized. Why doesn’t Outlook know anything about Facebook? Why don’t my photos automatically get pushed to Flickr? Why don’t I have a news app on my desktop that brings in Tweets from Twitter? Why aren’t notifications built into the system at a deep level?
3. We are collecting digital crap like photos, videos, and documents at a dizzying rate. But how do you organize it better? Or, worse yet, once you get it organized into folders etc how do you back it up? Remember, my HD video files are many gigabytes and pushing them around is difficult, not to mention that I lose track of which hard drive has which files and there isn’t an easy way to upload some of these megafiles to online storage.
4. Cross-device working is pretty difficult. I’m going to have computers in my car, in my pocket, on my coffee table, and hooked up to my TV soon. Moving back and forth between all of these different screens isn’t easy, and if it’s doable each screen isn’t used appropriately in many cases (fonts don’t switch to bigger sizes for TV playing, and documents don’t get simpler for small screen viewing the way they should in all cases).
5. Why can’t my Xbox be a Windows 7 PC and vice versa? Does the world really need separate devices for all these features?
6. The world is moving to touch screens, yet the UI in Windows is still pretty heavily mouse-centric.
Anyway, these are some of the areas I hope to see Microsoft work on in the future of Windows.
Microsoft is already doing some things to keep Windows relevant. It is making Windows available in the cloud. (That’s what Windows Azure is). And it is researching how to make Windows — or whatever its ultimate successor is called — a concurrent, distributed OS. (That’s what the incubation codenamed “Midori” is.)
But what the majority of people think about and see when it comes to Windows is whatever ships on new PCs. On that front, Microsoft is making fairly incremental changes to Windows. Under the covers, Windows 7 is built on top of the Windows NT kernel Microsoft has been using for the past decade or so. Microsoft is making efforts to better organize the guts of Windows, reducing its footprint and improving its stability. (That’s what “MinWin” is.) The company also is investigating how to improve the Windows Update process, making it less intrusive and cumbersome, while still providing users with improvements in between Windows OS delivery cycles. And the Redmondians are investigating ways to insure compatibility of older legacy apps with next-gen Windows releases. All this stuff is goodness.
But what Microsoft really needs to do to insure Windows’ continued relevance is to be unafraid of introducing a whole new operating system at some point. At some point, in the not-too-distant future, Windows is going to need to be supplanted by “the next big thing.” Because Microsoft has an installed base of over 1 billion, company brass (rightly) give backward compatibility a huge amount of importance. But Microsoft needs to find a way to offer customers a choice of operating systems–Windows and Doors (meaning whatever follows Windows — probably some microkernel-based, developed-from-scratch thing, which may or may not have any relation to Midori). Maybe Windows and Doors will dual-boot; maybe they will just co-exist. Maybe Doors will be some kind of variant of the evolving Windows Phone OS or an offshoot of its Mashup OS/Gazelle research project that is somewhat like Google’s Chrome OS.
In any case, some time in the next five-plus years, Microsoft is going to need find the courage (and the correct marketing message) to cut the existing Windows cash-cow cord to stay relevant.
Mary-Jo Foley blogs about Microsoft at ZDNet’s All About Microsoft and is the author of Microsoft 2.0. She has reported on technology for two decades.
For Windows to remain important, it will have to win and hold the world of low-end Web terminals–smart phones, netbooks, and notepads–just as it won and held the PC. That means offering a small footprint, strong power management, and well-designed packages of software and hardware that are less open and more secure than a typical PC. For Microsoft, that’s a technical challenge, but even more a business one, because it will have to work more closely with hardware and software developers than it ever has before.
Rob Helm is director of research at Directions on Microsoft.
The comparison is far from perfect. But as I think about the future of Windows, I actually believe the folks at Microsoft responsible for its ubiquitous computer operating system can take a lesson from their cousins in mobile. With the recently unveiled Windows Phone 7, Microsoft has more or less been willing to start from scratch and offer something that looks potentially very sweet. (I say this based on a demo, of course, and well aware that phones based on the new mobile operating system are still unproven and months away.) We’ll have to see, but what this may represent is a new way thinking out of Redmond: the realization that we as a company no longer have to do it a certain way because, well, that’s the way we’ve always done it before.
Now, I’m by no means suggesting that Microsoft has to start from scratch when it comes to the traditional Windows OS for computers, much less prescribing specific changes. Microsoft’s sagging fortunes in the highly competitive smartphone market hardly mirror its still-dominant position in the core operating systems arena. I happen to be a fan of Windows 7, certainly compared to the much-maligned Windows Vista. But what I am saying is that Microsoft shouldn’t be burdened by the shackles of legacy computing as it looks ahead.
To be sure, Windows has evolved through the years, and at a certain point Microsoft has (in other areas anyway) been willing to make a break with the past. Consider how the “ribbon interface” altered the status quo with Office a few years back. And yet when it comes to Windows, Microsoft seems reluctant to take the bold leaps that rival Apple has been willing to make when it feels its software has reached retirement age–OS 9 anyone?
Given Microsoft’s still monster-sized market share with Windows you can’t blame them. And I’m sure Microsoft’s corporate customers wouldn’t want to see anything too radical. But at a time in which so much more everyday computing is moving to the cloud, Microsoft may have to (to borrow an old Apple slogan) “think different.”
When to change is never an easy call to make. My belief is that Microsoft should ride Windows 7 as long as it can–it is generally a fine operating system. But a fresh emphasis on flexible thinking may ultimately open up rich new possibilities for Windows.