Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Windows 7: A Turning Point for Microsoft?

The now officially named Windows 7 carries the heavy burden of Vista's disappointments. Consumers, business users, and pundits have foisted such high expectations on the currently in development OS's back, that it 'will be a miracle if the final result satisfies anyone. However, lost amid all the hand-wringing is Microsoft's startling decision to lighten Windows 7's load.

In a stunning reversal, Microsoft announced that future versions of Windows would no longer feature e-mail, contact management, calendar, photo management, and moviemaking in the initial install. Instead, Microsoft customers will be encouraged to download these apps from Windows Live online services. And although these services are, for now, somewhat underpowered compared with their current in-OS counterparts, there's every expectation that Microsoft will enrich the entire lineup in time for the Windows 7's 2009 or 2010 launch.

This is precisely the opposite of what Microsoft did 15 years ago when it launched what would be the last great version of DOS. Back in 1993, Microsoft stuffed the popular desktop PC platform (which still led Windows by a good margin) with its own versions of virtually every popular utility on the market. DOS 6 shipped with memory management, disk compression, backup, antivirus, and hard drive optimization. Two areas—memory management and compression—had, had before then spawned a cottage industry of solutions that were designed to access memory between 640K and 1MB (hard to believe, isn't it?) and help users extend their already-overstuffed 20MB (yes, I said "MB") hard drives.

Despite the bluster displayed by these utility manufacturers, Microsoft's effectively killed their businesses by its decision to build utilities into its OS, and few survived into the next decade.

Now, for perhaps the first time in memory, Microsoft is doing exactly the opposite—uncoupling key products from its operating system. Publicly, Microsoft said it has "believed for some time now that a combination of rich functionality that comes with the Windows OS and consumers' favorite services on the Web produce the best Windows Experience." Sounds rather like the Macy's Santa who sends customers to Gimbels in Miracle on 34th Street, but without the sincerity.

Look, I'm glad Microsoft is finally taking the fat out of its OS with Windows 7. While its techs are at it, why don't they look at grabbing the spinal column of Windows—the Registry—and ripping that out as well? Just reach into the back and pull. Sure, it'll make the OS a bit wobbly at first, but I'm sure Microsoft will come up with a better, and more reliable, substructure for Windows 7.

This is a watershed moment, but I don't think that Microsoft has really had a change of heart. I still think it wants to crush the competition. The problem is that it no longer controls the playing field. Applications run on the browser and can pretty much ignore the OS (unlike the browser, which needs the OS to run).

Microsoft has rarely built "best of breed" utilities (most of the DOS 6 replicants were pale imitations of its commercial competitors), and most of the in-OS apps that Windows 7 is shedding are decent products, but they're often not the best. Hey, I like Movie Maker, but I get much, much more out of Adobe Premiere Elements. What Microsoft did have going for it with these apps and the utilities it baked into the OS in the early 90's is convenience. The apps were available right inside the platform—no disks required. Back then there wasn't an Internet, where you could simply download a new option.

Today, if you don't like what's inside Windows, you simply go online and find another, often free or very affordable option. There's no way for Microsoft to effectively compete with this model except to give up. Obviously, Microsoft isn't giving up, but the idea of its products and services competing on their own merits is certainly a new concept for the company. The only thing that would be more shocking is if it unbundled Internet Explorer from Windows 7 and let consumers start by choosing how they want to surf the Web and access online small business services.


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