Microsoft, You Missed An Opportunity

A few days ago, I wrote a post calling attention to the trouble Atlantic correspondent James Fallows was having with Windows Vista. Apparently, even he has had enough of Vista and reverted to XP. This situation leaves me shaking my head. However, Mr. Fallows makes the excellent point that:

Sooner or later, we will all (in the PC world) be using Vista. That’s how new computers will come.

So given the choice, wouldn’t Microsoft prefer that users actually wanted to use their operating system? Forced migration to something not as good rarely leads to a happy ending. Tossing aside the argument of Mac vs. PC for a minute, I’m left wondering why a company wouldn’t aim for better results, for happier customers.

Here’s the thing, I remember the days of having to boot up my computer using disks to run DOS. Windows 3.1 seemed light years ahead of what I could do in DOS (programming wasn’t my strong point). Windows 95 didn’t seem quite as amazing, but 2000 acted more stable (I loathed ME). Then there was XP. I’ve loved XP. However, I prepared myself for the day that Microsoft would ask me to move on to something else. I figured whatever came next would look like that leap between DOS and 3.1 because XP played out what we already expected in an operating system. Instead, we got Vista—the memory-draining, battery-sucking, DRM mess masquerading as an operating system.

Optimistic, I ordered a new laptop for my grandmother with Vista. Short story—she hasn’t had any serious issues, but the little I’ve had to work with it to set up email and network connections left me hating it. I went from planning to buy a new computer loaded with Vista to scrambling for a new PC that offered XP. I did the happy dance when Dell announced that certain models would offer XP as an option. (Yes, I considered a Mac, but I’ve had a less than stellar experience with Macs. I know, the exception to the rule. I do think they’re pretty.)

Microsoft isn’t the only company to stumble over its past. American car companies are still trying to recover from the Japanese invasion that shows no signs of slowing. Companies like General Motors are exhibiting more life than others. Cars and operating systems are only the beginning. The publishing industry, the music business—any of these sound familiar—are both struggling to stay relevant in the changing marketplace.

Even as a “technology” company, Microsoft is not immune to the changing tide and the need to innovate. Within the bowels of Microsoft, some really smart people are probably planning their next move to battle Google for world domination. In the meantime, if Microsoft can’t deliver a positive experience for individuals like James Fallows who were willing to give Vista a chance, it won’t matter what Microsoft plans for the future.

Although adoption of Vista is growing while Mac OS X use is staying flat, what will happen in the fall when Apple unveils its latest operating system, Leopard? Given Apple’s recent launch of the iPhone, and past results of other Apple launches, the user experience will likely surpass that of early Vista users.

During the recent dual interview of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Jobs was asked about what drove the turnaround of Apple. He made the very astute observation that “Apple wasn’t going to beat Microsoft. It didn’t need to. It needed to remember that Apple was Apple.”(link) I think the same reasoning could apply for Microsoft with a twist.

Is it possible that Microsoft no longer needs to be all things to all people? What if Microsoft became the expert at providing the flexible framework for all other developers to hang their programs on? (I’m not a programmer, so if my idea isn’t feasible, please give me some wiggle room.) As I understand it, one of Microsoft’s big headaches is trying to make the thousands of programs, drivers, and all the other bits and pieces compatible with its new operating systems. What if that was someone else’s job? Wouldn’t that free Microsoft to build a truly dynamic operating system? Wait, it almost sounds like I’m describing an open development process. Now wouldn’t that be an amazing leap forward?



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July 2007
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