Post-Windows World?

Just like the people in this nation that could never let us be post-racial after the election of a black president, there are many that will not let us ever truly go into a post-Windows world. (This is in no way painting racists with the same brush as Windows users, far from it – it is just that there will always be both. Hopefully far less of the former than the latter.)

Microsoft’s Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s for a short time more anyway, has given a final proclamation of the state of Microsoft, and while many are writing about it, many of those articles are imprinting more of their own feelings upon the report than should be for a hard news item.

[Hey, I’ve never said, pretended, or intimated that I was unbiased, or would not let my opinions seep into everything I write here!]

But Preston Gralla, longtime writer for PC World has given an article that gives us the best look at that final notice from the man that would be king (of Microsoft, that is) -

Ray Ozzie’s so-called “doomsday” farewell memo last week carried a potentially dangerous hidden message for Microsoft: For the company to be succeed in the future, Windows as we know it must die.

Ozzie’s memo, titled Dawn of a New Day, describes the challenges he believes Microsoft faces in the next five years and beyond. The core of those challenges, he writes, is that we’re entering a “post-PC” world, in which mobile phones, tablets, “appliance-like connected devices,” and Web sites and services are key, while PCs and big, client-based programs are of secondary importance. He writes:

As we’ve begun to embrace today’s incredibly powerful app-capable phones and pads into our daily lives, and as we’ve embraced myriad innovative services & websites, the early adopters among us have decidedly begun to move away from mentally associating our computing activities with the hardware/software artifacts of our past such as PC’s, CD-installed programs, desktops, folders & files.

This is, pardon me, for the stumble-bums that are like those who know nothing about any of the things they use, such as those with cars, who never check water, oil, tire pressure, etc., and then wonder what the hell happened when they crash because a worn tire blew out, or the engine seized on that sudden long trip, the one taken before a small inventory and check list was used to assess the car’s condition.

These people are also known as the “I don’t care how it works, as long as it does” crowd.

There will always be that type, but as I have said, there will always be a PC, as long as we cannot transmute matter and energy in non-destructive ways. When we can, one day perhaps, turn that 3” by 5” cell phone into a quad-core PC with a full size keyboard, and a 21” monitor, all running from that cell phone battery, and when done, collapse it back into our shirt pocket, then we will be post-PC.

Until then, not so much.

The problem for Microsoft is that the biggest chunk of its profits come from those “hardware/software artifacts of our past” — Windows and Office. Microsoft still hasn’t figured out how to make money from mobile, Web sites, or Web services, while its competitors have. Earlier in the memo, Ozzie notes:

Certain of our competitors’ products and their rapid advancement & refinement of new usage scenarios have been quite noteworthy. Our early and clear vision notwithstanding, their execution has surpassed our own in mobile experiences, in the seamless fusion of hardware & software & services, and in social networking & myriad new forms of internet-centric social interaction.

As a company, Microsoft is organized around building very big, complex pieces of software that take immense amounts of time, effort, and coordination, and that contain massive amounts of code — in other words, complex software like Windows. Here’s what Ozzie has to say about such complexity in his memo:

Complexity kills. Complexity sucks the life out of users, developers and IT. Complexity makes products difficult to plan, build, test and use. Complexity introduces security challenges. Complexity causes administrator frustration.

The future, he says, belongs to simplicity:

Microsoft, at this point, simply isn’t organized to build appliance-like devices or cloud-based services. Its time and resources are devoted largely to big-bang operating systems and office suites that takes years to build. This causes a myriad of problems, and key among them is that it means that Microsoft can’t respond quickly to user demand or changes in the market.

Though it was before my time, this certainly sounds like the old IBM vision, of a terminal device connected to a mainframe, with all the computing power we could ever need from a distance, so that we never see the computer straining to service our needs. The only difference is that the terminal is wireless, and handheld. And that paradigm may hold, but for the data entry part. For some (note that I did not say all) use of a real keyboard will be needed, because entry of columns of numbers, or the writing of a tome for publication is not easily done with two thumbs, or a stylus-object.

For the person never wanting to do more than watch crappy, small YouTube videos, check the weather, or the road conditions on the way to Yosemite, no problem – the handheld Android device will suffice. (I’m not sure how satisfying an experience it will be though – other than the gee whiz effect of being able to accomplish much with something that fits into the palm of the hand.)

Contrast that with Android, which Google continually updates, and which is then automatically updated on consumer’s phones. Since a little over a year ago, beginning in September 2009, Android has gone through versions 1.6, 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2, with version 2.3 expected some time in the fourth quarter of the year, version 3.0 expected in early 2011, and version 4.0 rumored to ready some time around the middle of 2011.

Making the equivalent changes to Windows could take close to a decade. Working that slowly simply doesn’t work anymore; technology and the world change too fast.

Ozzie himself should know this a totally unfair comparison, on so many levels. Certainly Mr. Gralla does. It would take a couple of pages to explain why, but if you are interested in what I usually write about, you already know that. Thirty seconds of reflection should do.

Obviously, Microsoft can’t actually kill Windows and forgo those billions of dollars in revenue. But if the company continues to be organized around building a big-bang, complex, operating system, rather than software that can be quickly updated as the world and technology changes, its days of big growth may be likely over. That’s the hidden message in Ozzie’s memo. The question is whether Microsoft will heed it.

There will always be a need for a Windows-like OS. It may not be Windows, but like the IBM System 360, or even older devices, Windows in some form will keep on truckin’ far past the time when the people who don’t want to be bothered using a PC do.

Of course, by then, there may be enough people in this, and possibly other, worlds that are using PCs, so that Microsoft will still crank out sales of a couple hundred million of those core products.

They can’t count on it, of course.

But the thing I am saying, that I think no one else is, is that while it is spreading its wings into wider vistas (no pun intended, really) that are part of the new world of tomorrow, the company must remember where its roots are, and like every tree, the branches don’t live when the roots rot. To keep the roots in good condition takes a little care – few great trees survive without care, and Windows and Office certainly will not, if Microsoft does not keep tending the tree that its fortunes spring from.

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Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering – because you can’t take it in all at once.

Audrey Hepburn

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