Windows Brand Under Siege

The most popular story on the NYTimes email list this weekend is about the topic that has been one of the most controversial on business and IT websites – the exact extent of the disaster that is Windows Vista and what it is doing to the Windows Brand. What makes the NYTimes story more relevant is the fact that it quotes the words of top Microsoft executives Jon Shirley, Bob Nash and Steve Sinofsky among others at and just after the launch of Vista. These Microsoft executives are complaining about the very same thing that others have been citing:
1)bloated OS with much greater memory, diskspace, CPU power and Graphics card requirements than Windows XP, Apple Mac or Linux PCs that quickly inflate the price of the PC required by $300-800;
2)the practical unavailability of Windows XP at all major PC retailers and direct sales from DELL, HP and other major PC vendors – only large corporates can order new PCs loaded with Windows XP. But even that Microsoft will cutoff in June of this year. Windows XP will no longer be sold to anyone as of the end of June.
3)unavailability of peripherals and drivers for common scanners, printers, and other devices that work fine on Windows XP;
4)the inability or handicapped working of hundreds of popular programs and games in Vista that work fine in Windows XP;
Now to this list of complaints from Microsoft executives, I would add 4 more major problems with the Windows Brand.
I)Windows used to be the lowest initial cost;but not the lowest ongoing cost PC desktop OS despite Redmond’s claims to the contrary on the latter point. Now with Windows XP soon not to be available and Vista having a consumer price tag in the $100-350 range before adding the additional hardware, software and device upgrade costs,. Thus Vista is the highest initial cost desktop OS. This cost is worsened by the fact that users have to sort through 6-8 editions of Vista or Windows Server 2008 and figure which works best for them.

As for ongoing costs, Vista does remove many of the security and reliability risks that plagued Windows XP + IE6 until recently; however those have been replaced by a whole new set problems like a)make ongoing make Vista work with printers and peripherals or legacy application programs. Superimpose on that the non-People Ready nature of both Vista + IE7 (a lot of familiar layouts plus operations are changed) and suddenly the ongoing support and operation of Windows Vista + IE7 impose new and hefty training or helps desk costs. Bottom line – Windows long ago ceded being lowest cost initial and ongoing cost desktop OS, Vista just makes matters worse.

II)Windows has always been able to claim as good as if not better features or performance than MacOS and Linux. That is no longer the case as these articles on Mac features and Linux features show. The really revealing gap is memory requirements for Vista versus MacOS (Vista from the get go requires 50 to 100% more) times and 3-5 times Linux memory usage at start-up. This is made worse by the fact that the upcoming Vista SP1-Service Pack 1 fails to correct these performance and feature problems; but rather is devoted to security, reliability and compatibility patches.

III)Windows used to have the most applications and innovations. AJAX and Web 2.0 is starting to steal all the innovations and applications. look at vendors like Google, Zimbra, Zoho, and Picnik to name a few. Look what is happening in diverse fields such as Project Management, Collaboration, Social Networking and BI-Business Intelligence which have gone online and cross platform in a big way.. This shift is aided and abated by the fact that Java, Ruby, Python, ActionScript/Flash and other scripting tools are truly cross OS platforms (typically running in all versions of Windows, MacOS and Linux if not also BSD, Solaris, and 0ther Unix) . They offer great cross platform development tools (think Eclipse, NetBeans, Flex, Ruby on Rails, etc), as good if not better performance than Windows .NET and often are more secure and reliable.

So more and more SaaS and other applications are starting to desert the Windows desktop and take to the Web. Along with that is coming innovations in technology use like iPhone gestures, some great Linux based touchscreen kiosks and embedded processing. And there is a race to make the mobile phones and handsets work well in Linux(Google’s Accordion), MacOS(iPhone) and Windows (Mobile). This leads to the last major fissure in the Windows Brand.

IV)The Windows line up is false. Just ask any Microsofty about Java’s cross platform capability and they will deride it as Write Once Debug Everywhere. Well the same can be said about the myth of the unbroken chain from Windows Embedded, Window Mobile, Windows CE, Windows Desktop through to Windows Server. Just ask any Windows VAR about porting apps among the different platforms and versions of .NET and other Microsoft coding APIs. Truly Java has a much better flow from J2ME through J2SE and then J2EE.

So with these major challenges facing the Windows Brand what is Chairman Steve Ballmer saying about Vista and the problems facing Redmond ? Well Microsoft-Watch editor Joe Wilcox, long a fairly frank observer of the scene, tried to ask that very question of Steve at the recent Mix08 conference in Las Vegas. Joe describes the performance as Shameless, Shameless, Shameless. This is a must read link because despite the fact that Joe did not get the answer to his question he was left admiring Steve Ballmer’s chutzpah.

Whither the Windows Brand ?

The Windows Brand is clearly under siege but Microsoft Chairman Steve Ballmer appears to be taking an Alfred E. Newman “what me worry” approach to the problem. This can mean any of three major possibilities.

1)Like George W. Bush, either Steve is not fully decked out or simply prefers to ignore the obvious. This then means that Windows 7, the next and finally-lean-and-mean edition that Redmond is now promising for 2010 will be lucky to make a mid 2012 delivery date and probably specs. Steve is describing Microsoft ten years after Bill gates entry into the Enterprise market as still young in Enterprise software(Think Scalability Daze from 1999). Also consider that since Windows 3.0 Microsoft has been promising to put performance and design at the top of the Windows agenda.

Clearly with memory and handle leaks plus a bloated and ever growing Registry and swapfiles and the current seriously bloated resource usage – Windows still has a long way to go. Its not as if Microsoft does not know how to do a lean and mean version of Windows as Windows Embedded and Mobile attest to. Its just bringing that discipline to Vista while matching MacOS and Linux and Solaris feature sets that appears to be the major hurdle for Redmond.

2)Steve is just biding his time. Waiting until the many recent and major executive shifts including the departure of Bill Gates from day to day operations allows his team to set into place. This then can mean many things including a shift away from relying on Vista and instead bring his huge army of $500-600Million per data centers to bear on online enemy number 1 – Google. But Steve has a problem here too. Windows Server 2008 is already trimmed down to run just core web operations on the Microsoft.com website. Net result => his flagship Microsoft.com website is running slower than 67% of all Websites. Vista, which underlies Windows Server 2008 code, stings again. In any case, it appears Windows and Vista are being setup for the narrow, quick-fix solution once again.

3)Steve is being Machiavellian. He certainly can be so. In proof of his loyalty to Windows, Steve (who had been a project manager of the joint IBM/Microsoft OS/2 effort), went out at the Comdex trade show and trashed OS/2 with all the known bugs that he had collected from his minions. And this shortly after the supposedly amicable break up of the IBM and Microsoft joint venture.

So Steve figures he is working from a position of unassailable monopoly strength. 90%++ market share of Windows desktop and Office Suite. 70% market share of IE browser despite the fact that even the new IE8 still concedes many features and performance to Firefox, Opera, Safari and other browsers. 40-50% market share of Windows Server depending on how you do the counting. And he is matching dollar for dollar what Google is spending to build world-wide massive data centers.

Finally, and most importantly, consumers have caved in and appear to be swallowing gag-me-with-spoon Vista. Corporate IT, especially in America, has delayed but also appears to have acceded to accepting Windows and Office and many of the Windows Server product lines as being no longer the lowest cost or best price/performance alternatives.

Basically, Steve is counting on being able to leverage his monopoly powers to enable him to continue to set defacto standards, set monopoly prices, stall on conformance with government directives (as he is doing with DOJ and EU), and make the fixes to Windows and Vista when and how it fits Microsoft’s best interests. Obviously the decision to cutoff Windows XP first from consumer outlets and then from corporate access shows the man knows how to play “Redmond Hardball”.

So it clearly does not bode well for Windows Vista getting fixed soon no matter which of the Ballmer scenarios you care to consider. Given that more apps and development is going to the Web or to Java and Flash cross platform tools, this may be the time to switch from Windows.

So what to do? I recommend to CEOs and their CIO subservients to take a 5th of their favorite hooch, down it at once and make the switch out of Windows on the desktop. Its easier and a bigger cost saver than given credit for (the companies that are doing it are not letting on – keep their competitors in the slothful dark). Or take another 5th of hooch and just enjoy the ride down.

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