By twenty-eight Windows watchers | Monday, March 8, 2010 at 4:03 am
Windows arrived as part of an experiment. That experiment was to see if you could take a product, break it up into standardized parts, and by doing so make it cheaper and more attractive to users. Initially even the interface and the OS were separate. It worked for about ten years, and then vertical integration started taking back over. Now the most successful company as measured by profitability is Apple–who appears to be still locked into the proprietary hardware and software model that proceeded Windows’ success.
The problem with the PC model and the even more complex cell phone OS model was that no one person owned the customer experience. As a result, with the exception of Apple, PC vendors started doing stupid things like not assuring the service experience or putting software that reduced reliability (crapware) on the systems they were selling. In addition, complexity and an excessive focus on cost reductions got out of hand, significantly reducing the perceived quality of the system.
Windows Phone 7 Series and the Microsoft Stores are an attempt by Microsoft to assert quality control. But Microsoft doesn’t own the related hardware brands, and its partners may bristle at being subordinated. In both cases Microsoft is driving the hardware specifications to assure a high quality experience but differentiation, as a result, may prove to be elusive. Better, but still an ugly blend with lots of potential conflicts.
In terms of profit, Windows in Microsoft’s most important product. I think we can argue where goes Windows so goes Microsoft. Microsoft has a decision to make. The future of Windows could be like Zune, Xbox, or Apple and become part of a Microsoft-branded solution. Given how little Zune and Xbox contribute to Microsoft’s bottom line today, this could work, but it also would likely result in Microsoft being smaller and Apple larger.
Microsoft could try to take the market back to its roots by driving a newer version of the initial PC complex multi-vendor platform, but I think that ship has likely sailed. The right path is likely to rethink personal computing, anticipate where the market wants to go, and get there first. This suggests an OS that is neither in the cloud (Chrome OS) nor on the desktop, but a hybrid delivered customized on-line and paid for by subscription (assuring loyalty) offset by advertising revenue. It either needs to go back to being part of someone else’s highly integrated hardware product or move ahead to something that is completely decoupled so Microsoft can completely own the software experience. Right now it is caught in the middle.
For Windows to flourish it needs to be gradually reborn so it has more of the future than the past in it, and can finally can provide the hardware flexibility people want, with the consistent easy user interface they need, and the specific differentiation that service providers and hardware makers require. In the end, what was once a healthy ecosystem surrounding Windows has decayed and now needs to be rebuilt around a forward looking concept that can better address the needs of the users, hardware manufacturers, service providers, advertisers, and developers (online and offline) that survive on it.
While a number of concepts could work, the market prefers one.
Everything Microsoft does online is a separate download from what it does in Windows. Everyone else builds things into their existing products. Microsoft makes most of its billions off of two products: Windows and Office. Microsoft is trying to evolve for the cloud in an environment where it wants to not eat those revenues until it has to.
How do you evolve Windows into something that can be manageably updated in a reasonable period of time? The fact of the matter is that [Windows] Vista took 4-5 years to develop. Windows 7 was a great minor update that made all the things in Vista work. How do they fundamentally alter this code in a nimble way? That’s a challenging question.
Windows is going to have to evolve more than just updates and creating a modern interface. I think that the challenge is that a lot of this stuff has to happen in conjunction with the cloud. What we’ve seen Microsoft do is to create a separate Windows Live…downloadable experiences for some of the key things that you really want to do.
I think that if Windows is going to survive in the forms it is today–a thing that people pay a lot of money to have on their computer–it needs to be a very good way of getting onto the Internet. And by the way, I think this holds true for Apple too. Apple charges even more than Microsoft for a device that gets onto the Internet.
So, they are going to have to add even more value. I think the challenge that Google and others present is that there is a lot of value that comes with just connecting to the Web. So, over time, what Windows needs to do is to show that there is even more value in having this really high-quality onramp. There’s got to be a lot of work going on right now to create what are those really quality experiences.
Windows today is at the peak of its popularity, yet waning in relevance and influence, at least on the desktop and the lap. The emergence of the cloud means that the OS simply doesn’t matter as much as it once did. Even if new competitors like the Google Chrome OS prove marginally better for Web applications, there’s still little motivation for users to switch; Windows 7 works well enough for them to stop fretting about the OS.
If Windows 7 and succeeding versions were to spark a new generation of innovative, widely used touch-based apps, somehow resuscitating the moribund category of desktop software, Windows could bask in the glow and reclaim relevance. For that to happen, Microsoft will have to somehow motivate developers to get on the stick; and Redmond will need to build a few truly useful touch apps of their own.
Similarly, if future versions of Windows can incorporate some of Project Natal’s gestural- and language-based computing technology (think Wii without a controller) that Microsoft demonstrated in 2009, exciting things could happen. Remember how the Wii got nongamers to buy a gaming console for the first time? Natal on Windows could generate similar enthusiasm. Microsoft has currently committed to Natal on the Xbox 360 (which runs an operating system reportedly based on some incarnation of Windows). Getting Project Natal onto a real version of Windows would be a stretch – but an exciting one.
Conversely, as the OS loses importance on desktops, it takes on greater relevance in phones and, potentially, other small-form-factor devices. On a phone, the OS defines much of the potential user experience, and Windows is currently playing second banana (or maybe fourth or fifth) to other platforms, including Apple’s iPhone OS, Android, WebOS/Palm, and BlackBerry. For Windows to become relevant in this space, Microsoft must embrace the smallest PCs (phones) and at the very least get to feature parity with the competition. Windows Phone 7 at least puts Microsoft in the game, though it may arguably be too late.
But let’s assume for a second that Windows Phone becomes a world class phone operating system–bug-free with no performance issues. The blueprint for relevance, then, could play out something like this. Microsoft would first need to contract with a prominent third-party manufacturer to build a big-buzz smartphone, a real “wow” device that runs the latest and greatest version of Windows Phone. Then they could subsidize the device heavily (so it would be inexpensive for consumers), and make sure it is sold unlocked. Don’t think that could happen? Keep in mind that over the years, Microsoft has frequently been accused of establishing “predatory pricing” on software in an attempt to get traction and take down an entrenched competitor. This would be a similar approach, but with hardware.
As a key part of this strategy, Microsoft would also need to widely distribute Windows Phone SDKs and stipulate very generous terms for app developers. And it would need to set its own engineers to work creating several hundred world-class apps that users could download on launch day. Yes, Microsoft would essentially be buying market share, but that might be the easiest way to breathe life into Windows Mobile–and by extension the entire Windows line.
Steve Fox is editorial director and vice president of PCWorld.
Windows 7 was essentially a reclamation project, but in the coming years, Windows will need to undergo some fundamental changes to remain relevant. The componentization begun with Windows 7 should accelerate so the major portions of the OS can be turned off at any time for maximum performance on any task.
At some point the Registry and DLL structure will have to go and of course the next Windows client should be downloadable off the Web and, if the user chooses, run from a remote service with only a small kernel resident on the client system.
In other words, Windows remains relevant by becoming less and less noticeable.
–Lance Ulanoff is editor in chief of PCMag.com.
Windows needs to start again from the ground up. The architecture is very old, it’s got this complex driver system that constantly causes issues for people, and there’s a lot of legacy support. Microsoft should do for Windows what Apple did for OS 9: allow people to run Windows apps in “classic” mode, but then rebuild the whole operating system. A totally clean break. Sure, it could take many years to transition, but the long-term benefits of having a new system would be worth it. As long as people could continue to run their old applications in the meantime, Microsoft wouldn’t have a huge problem. And why not? It’s already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in virtualization technology. They have the resources!
Microsoft has the lion’s share of the operating system market, but the company will have work diligently to maintain its dominance for the next 25 years. I think most important thing Microsoft needs to do is to make Windows easier. I also think Microsoft needs to optimize the operating system for mobile lifestyles and devices.
Microsoft really needs to focus on making Windows more pleasurable to use. Windows 7 is definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s still to complex for many users, especially for consumers who just want to use their computers rather than learning how to use them. How to get stuff done using Windows should be painfully obvious for users and the learning curve for complex tasks should be reduced. I don’t have all of the answers, but there’s clearly something wrong when average consumers are willing to pay techs over $100 to come to their homes to set up a home network.
People are using computers in a lot more places for a lot more things than we were 25 years ago, yet logging onto Windows isn’t all that different now compared to then. The operating system should be fully aware of where I am and what I’m likely to be doing when I log in rather than presenting me with a blank desktop. PCs should be aware of users’ surroundings, usage patterns, and needs so that the Windows experience will become truly personal.