Crunch time at Microsoft

It’s been only 15 months since Microsoft unveiled Windows Vista. Yet the company is already talking up the next version of its operating system. The haste is not surprising: Vista was a disappointment. Another dud will cost Microsoft dearly. Windows is “untenable” and “collapsing”.

That was the view expressed by two analysts from consulting group Gartner at a recent summit in Las Vegas. Analysts Michael Silver and Neil MacDonald tore chunks off Windows and warned Microsoft that it must make radical changes to its operating system or risk it becoming irrelevant. “Windows as we know it must be replaced,” they said.

According to a Computerworld report, the two analysts said Microsoft had not responded to the market, was overburdened by nearly two decades of legacy programming code, and faced serious competition that threatened to make Windows irrelevant. “For Microsoft, its ecosystem and its customers, the situation is untenable,” they said.

Microsoft is struggling to convince corporate customers to upgrade to Vista. Most don’t see a compelling reason to replace the now seven-year-old Windows XP, which, after three service packs (bug fixes and improvements) is a relatively stable and secure operating system. “Most users … do not see Vista as being better enough than Windows XP to make incurring the cost and pain of migration worthwhile,” the analysts said.

Computerworld says computer users want a smaller Windows that can run on low-priced hardware. A modular operating system with more frequent updates would help Microsoft keep up with the innovation taking place in Linux and on the Mac. It takes Microsoft painfully long to release updates to Windows because the software has become monolithic and too cumbersome to develop further without enormous effort.

A radical rethink is necessary — and noises coming out of Microsoft recently suggest the company knows this. It is talking of developing a “modularised” Windows that can be scaled up or down depending on the platform it’s running on. It will also need to integrate its online services (read: Windows Live) more effectively if it is to fend off Google, whose online applications are a big threat.

Reinventing Windows is easier said than done. The developers at Apple have it a lot easier. They only have to code Mac OS X for Apple hardware. Microsoft has to ensure that Windows works on thousands of bits of hardware developed by myriad third-party equipment manufacturers. One of the biggest drawbacks of Vista was that drivers — the software needed to power hardware — simply weren’t available at the time of the launch.

But how does Microsoft speed up development of its old code base? The answer is, it doesn’t — it’s going to have to turf out a lot of the underlying code in Windows. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Apple did it with Mac OS, junking its old operating system in favour of a brand-new product built on rock-solid Unix underpinnings. Mac OS X is so adaptable that Apple was able to modify the software to power its new iPhone handset. It would be impossible for Microsoft to retool the bloated Vista for a mobile device.

Windows is also being held back by Microsoft’s support of a wide array of legacy hardware. Instead of supporting age-old equipment, the company ought to dump the legacy. It won’t be popular, but to modernise Windows it may be necessary.

Microsoft has to make some big, bold decisions about Windows. The decisions it takes now will determine its place in the industry — and its financial health — in the decade ahead. With co-founder Bill Gates about to retire and Ray Ozzie set to step up to the plate as the company’s new chief software architect, it’s make or break time for Windows.

Windows Vista discussion

First published as the column Technology & You in the Financial Mail of April 18 2008


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Crunch time at Microsoft