The Future of Windows

By Ericka Chickowski  |  Posted 2008-10-28

Almost two years after Microsoft released Windows Vista to the corporate world, it has become quite clear that Microsoft is dealing with serious perception problems surrounding its longest-standing product. During the past few months the company has spent millions on a marketing campaign battling poor Vista perceptions with some arguable success, and it has now brought Service Pack 2 into beta testing in preparation for shaking the last kinks out of this latest OS iteration.

But many analysts and pundits wonder whether the only way out for Microsoft's flagship is its next release, Windows 7. Speculation begins in earnest now as the Redmond hierarchy releases its highly anticipated sneak peek into Windows 7 at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC), so Baseline is taking an in-depth look at Windows and its future prospects.

Unfortunately, much of Microsoft’s challenge right now is overcoming perceptions of Vista—that it is not a success financially..., but also from a technology perspective,” says Paul Thurrott, a noted author on Windows and the owner of the SuperSite for Windows. “I think that the big thing that [Microsoft is] really trying to get done in this release in a general sense is just proving that it can ship something quickly that is of high quality and is demonstratively better than the previous version.”

“If Vista were just a standalone operating system [OS], where you’re just playing with it on your desktop, it would be great. It has better security, it has more features, it has faster search engine and a nice GUI,”  says Laura Didio, principal and analyst for Information Technology Intelligence Corp. “Now the problem is, when you start adding all of those features, it can be complex.”

Vista Interoperability Problems

One of the biggest beefs users and analysts have had with Vista is its nagging interoperability problems, early issues with device drivers and other legacy problems. For example, Didio herself had to get a new printer that would work with her Vista system.

“I’m just a microcosm of the typical user. What happens in an office environment where you have  1,000 people, 10,000 people or even 100 people?” she asks. “Even in an SMB with 100 people in the office, you’re going to have four or five printers. What if you suddenly have to replace those? In this economy, businesses are not willing to spend one extra penny if they don't have to.”

According to Thurrott, Microsoft is still battling a Vista perception problem. At this point many of the integration issues have been worked out, but Microsoft can’t shake the bad rap. He believes the criticism may be a bit harsh, considering what Microsoft really did with the OS.

“People don’t appreciate what a major change that Vista was because most of those changes occurred under the hood,” he says. “If you’re a Windows XP user, it’s not hard to pick up Vista; everything is in the same basic place: the start button, the task bar, the desktop and the windows. Maybe they look a little different, but they work in similar fashion to the way they did in XP, so you look at those things and you say: ‘Well, this is like XP, so what’s the big deal?’ But they implemented some major architectural changes in Windows Vista that harmed compatibility.”

Thurrott says the perception problem is changing, though. “I’ve seen something that’s almost universal: People who don’t use Windows Vista tend to have very negative feelings about it, but people who do use it actually like it quite a bit,” he says.

Windows 7 Anticipation
Nevertheless, it may be too late for Vista. Some analysts see Windows 7 almost as repentance for Vista, almost as Windows 2000 was for Windows ME.

“The first question on my mind is what [is Microsoft] doing to not just avoid repeating the mistakes it made with Vista, but what is it doing to rectify them?” Didio says. “What [Microsoft has] to do with Windows 7 out of the box, is return to the same type of backward compatibility and forward compatibility with third-party applications and utilities that it gave us with Windows 2000. The integration and interoperability issues are going to be crucial. I mean, a lot of people are skipping Vista because of that.”

Didio believes that the typical business and consumer user most wants the level of simplicity they’ve come to expect from Microsoft products. “They just want to be able to turn it on, it works and it works with everything they have,” she says, explaining that Microsoft needs to make good on certain promises that it couldn’t fulfill with Vista. “I expect enhanced searching and querying, and they’ve got to [fix] the big disappointment with Vista, which was that we didn’t have the WinFS storage system. So they’ve got to get that right.”

But the biggest problem may be Microsoft’s haste in getting out a quality product, which the company has said it expects to release in late 2009 or early 2010. Didio and some other analysts remain skeptical, especially considering the delays Vista experienced.

But others, like Thurrott, believe that Microsoft will make its deadline, and release a quality product, too. He believes the unveiling of an early Windows 7 build at the PDC this week will show that Microsoft’s development team is capable of making early milestones and that people will be impressed with how far along the company is with its newest Windows version.

“They’re going to show off Windows 7 for the first time to press analysts and reviewers,
and I think people are going to be shocked,” Thurrott says.

One of the most interesting facets of Windows 7 is the anticipated unbundling of certain features that came part-and-parcel with Vista. “So they’ve talked about that a little bit; they are debundling some products,” he says. “Some of the stuff that used to be part of Windows will now be up in Windows Live, and that’s really smart.”

Windows Users React to Execution

The wisdom of the move may be debatable, though. Didio believes that user reactions to this move will depend on its execution. “If you’re taking things out, why are you taking them out? Are you saying that you think that the OS got too bloated?” she asks. “If that’s the case and you’re putting them in some place [else], how easy are you going to make it for customers to access Windows Live for these downloads? They’re going to have to be pretty explicit; otherwise, I see confusion down the road.”

Perhaps one of the most  interesting aspects of Windows 7 may not be a new feature, architecture or design element. Instead, Thurrott believes the differentiator this time around may be the way that the developers are putting the software together.

“The way things used to work was that during the beta process you would have all of these different groups in the Windows team that were working on different parts of the operating system, and they would put them into different builds that would then go out to testers. These [parts] would be of varying degrees of quality, so that one component might be an utter piece of junk and not ready, but this other thing had been done for some time and looked good,” Thurott says. “The way that [Microsoft is] doing it with Windows 7 is: If it’s not ready, it’s not in any beta version. It’s a very different way of looking at things [from the way it was done] during Windows Vista, which was a nightmare.”

Conceivably, he says, the company could set a firm date and release the build with all of the finished components, with the expectation of rolling out unfinished features later on. This is another benefit of unbundling features, along with the fact that—similar to Linux—users can control how big their operating system needs to be.

“I think people look at Windows Vista—and I think there is some validity to this—they look at it as big and bloated and slow and full of stuff that not everybody needs, and I think Windows 7 will be smaller and faster and lighter,” Thurrott says.

Didio says that it needs to be all of those things to convince users to upgrade. “[Microsoft has] to live down history, and [it has] to live down its past mistakes. You can’t make the upgrade experience jarring; otherwise, guess what? Nobody is going to upgrade. And if it costs people unnecessary money and time, they just won’t do it. That's the issue.”

Thurrott believes that Microsoft has the right leadership in place to accomplish this. “He kind of reminds me of General [Douglas] MacArthur, and sometimes you need a guy like MacArthur. I think that eventually he’s gonna want to nuke China, and then you’ve got to say goodbye to him, but I think for the short term, he is the right guy because [Microsoft needs] to turn that ship around. Eventually that style is not going to work, but right now, yeah, Windows is a mess so the company needs to rein all of that stuff in, and I think that [it has] the right people in place to make that happen.”

Microsoft Windows Competitive Factors
As Windows 7 comes to the market, it will not only face scrutiny because of Vista’s back history, but also because of the increasing legitimacy of Microsoft’s competitors. But that may not be a bad thing, Didio says. “I think Linux and open source are one of the best things that happened to Microsoft,” she explains. “It got them on their toes and that’s always a good thing.”

These days more and more consumers and businesses are considering open source distributions such as Red Hat and Ubuntu as a viable alternative to Windows, as opposed to being a pipe dream as in the past. Gerry Carr, marketing manager of Canonical, which sponsors Ubuntu and offers support services for both Ubuntu desktop and server users, isn’t convinced that Microsoft is sweating this competition too much—but that it is forcing the company to adjust its practices.

“I think once the world sees that there are alternatives that people will accept instead of Windows and Apple, the compelling case that they’re the only games in town becomes less compelling, and it will be difficult [for them] to sustain their prices,” Carr says. “It’s not that I believe that Microsoft is going to disappear, it’s just  going to change, and I think the open source alternative is going to be the agent for that change.”

Ubuntu has certainly been raising some eyebrows with the amount of traction it has gained in the past 18 months, bumping up from zero market share to a very modest 3 percent, according to IDC.
Although that doesn’t make a considerable dent in Microsoft’s bottom line, it does prove that customers are looking for other options.

“Customers are making a decision increasingly driven by cost, but they think at its fundamental level it’s about choice,” Carr says.

For example, Canonical recently signed on Wikipedia as an Ubuntu support customer. The IT department is using this open distribution for three major reasons, Carr says. First, staffers already had some Linux skills. Second, they wanted to have more control over their systems—being able to add more servers without having to worry about renegotiating license contracts. And, perhaps most importantly, they wanted to be able to access code to fix and customize it at their own discretion.

These control issues are definitely big points of contention for certain segments of the market, Carr says. “I don’t think Microsoft is sitting there too worried; they’ve got a pretty nice market base going that doesn’t care about some of those issues,” he says. “They’re very happy to pay for the license, pay for the support. But what I think is changing is that in the past you had very little choice—even if [the control situation] wasn’t OK for you. You’d have to use Microsoft anyway.”

Of course, for many organizations it isn’t just a binary choice of Microsoft or open source. Most enterprises that do go open source still use Microsoft. This, says Didio, is an important piece of the debate. Although Microsoft must compete with Linux and other open source choices, it must also service customers that want the flexibility to operate a mixed environment with Windows without having to worry about interoperability issues. This, she believes, will continue to grow as an issue that will affect Windows’ future success.

“I think what customers want is  flexibility,” she says. “They do not want to just be tied to one environment and, of course, this flies in the face of that sort of locked-in strategy that not just Microsoft, but all of the vendors have had.” She believes, though, that Microsoft’s agreement with Novell is a symbol of Microsoft’s willingness to play ball with competitors for the benefit of its customers. “Ballmer is nothing if not pragmatic, so one of the things that they’re doing is trying to make themselves more attractive from a licensing standpoint with these new technologies,” she explains.

Windows Long-Term Vision
Similarly, Microsoft must also tread a careful line when it comes to how it ties Windows into all of its other products. As cloud computing becomes a big part of the enterprise IT strategy, Microsoft customers are clamoring for the same flexibility and interoperability with Web applications and applications in the cloud as they get from products such as Microsoft Office. Didio believes that this is going to be a big factor in determining the long-term vision for Windows. “That’s the big question, because everybody wants to see what Microsoft is going to do to decouple Windows from the traditional constraints of an operating system tied to a server or a desktop platform,” Didio says.
Thurrott agrees, saying that Microsoft is still not quite adjusting its Windows strategy to the world around it. “I think desktop operating systems will always be important to some extent, but basically everything else around it is changing dramatically,” he says. “They  have to be working toward this cloud computing-type thing, which they are to some extent. [But,] you know, they’re introducing a small business computer server this year, a new version of their small business server, and it’s a very complex product. When you think about small businesses, wouldn’t these companies be better served using Web-based e-mail instead of installing an e-mail server on their premises and managing it? I mean it just doesn’t really address  the way things are changing.”

In addition to the cloud computing question, Thurrott believes that in the long term, Microsoft is also going to need to adjust its mobile strategy to better position Windows on that all-important “third screen.” “The world is moving on. We’re going to hit the point sooner or later where desktop computing is not the majority of the computing market in general,” he says. “And I think that the mobile side is where Microsoft is making some strategic mistakes.”

As he puts it, BlackBerry is “eating Microsoft’s lunch” and iPhone, Google Android-equipped phones and other hot devices not based on a Windows Mobile platform are the only devices garnering all of the user interest these days. “I don’t feel as if they have evolved that operating system enough over the years. I think that Microsoft has moved just too slowly and they’ve kept this thing too static.”

Turrott has heard from certain close sources that Microsoft is currently struggling internally with the debate over whether to start from scratch on Windows mobile or to continue adjusting the current platform.
“But I think Windows Mobile is stuck,” he says.

As Didio puts it, Microsoft has a real challenge ahead of it with Windows—balancing competition with partnerships, offering enough features while maintaining interoperability and simplicity, all the while keeping ahead of regulatory bodies such as the European Union.

“Microsoft has a real challenge: It’s got to be able to give corporations and consumers what they want,” she says. “It has to be very usable; it’s got to have a  high degree of reliability—there’s no margin for error—and if you’re using all of your vast R&D resources to build a much better mousetrap, you have to figure out a way of staying out of the crosshairs of regulatory bodies and commissions. Oh, and by the way, you have to be really secure; you have to work with everything; and you’ve got to have a smaller footprint.”