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Monday, March 27, 2006

Windows Vista

Recently I have been running a series of posts on Google's plans for the future and the looming battle with Microsoft (and here). During the last week there have been a number of articles in the press about the delayed launch of the new Windows Vista operating system, and I can't help thinking that the two issues are interconnected.

Today the NYT has an article which looks at a number of possible reasons for the delay (CNET version of the article here). The article contextualises Ms's problems in the 1998 US federal governmentlandmark antitrust suit against possible innovation stiffling over at Microsoft and points out that:

Eight years later, long after Microsoft lost and then settled the antitrust case, it turns out that Windows is indeed stifling innovation — at Microsoft.The company's marathon effort to come up with the a new version of its desktop operating system, called Windows Vista, has repeatedly stalled.

It then asks the question "what's wrong with Microsoft?". The answer offered is that Ms has become the victim of its own success (or at least of the strategy employed to achieve its own success). Microsoft is locked-into itself.

Windows runs on 330 million personal computers worldwide. Three hundred PC manufacturers around the world install Windows on their machines; thousands of devices like printers, scanners and music players plug into Windows computers; and tens of thousands of third-party software applications run on Windows. And a crucial reason Microsoft holds more than 90 percent of the PC operating system market is that the company strains to make sure software and hardware that ran on previous versions of Windows will also work on the new one — compatibility, in computing terms.

As a result, each new version of Windows carries the baggage of its past. As Windows has grown, the technical challenge has become increasingly daunting. Several thousand engineers have labored to build and test Windows Vista, a sprawling, complex software construction project with 50 million lines of code, or more than 40 percent larger than Windows XP.

"Windows is now so big and onerous because of the size of its code base, the size of its ecosystem and its insistence on compatibility with the legacy hardware and software, that it just slows everything down," observed David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School. "That's why a company like Apple has such an easier time of innovation."

Now this explanation is an interesting one since it raises the important underlying issue of what sort of operating system we (the non-commercial) users really need for the next generation computer and for the next generation set of internet applications and services.

I make no sectret of the fact that what I personally want is mobility, wide-ranging access to internet, and a minimal portable interface. This leads me to think about some sort of minimal thin-client or other. I personally don't feel the need for more os 'bloating' and don't see that this strategy will be a long term winner among non-commercial users, who will, remember, have another part of their needs increasingly catered for by the burgeoning mobile phone technology.

As an internal Ms memo quoted by the NYT states:

"Complexity kills. It sucks the life out of developers, it makes products difficult to plan, build and test, it introduces security challenges and it causes end-user and administrator frustration."

This isn't quite correct, complexity in an of itself doesn't kill, but it does if you have an underlying model which isn't adapted to it.

The Vista delay, according to Microsoft executives, is only a matter of a few more weeks to improve quality further, and is not attributable to any general flaw, but I can't help wondering, is MS itself wracked by doubts. To what extent will consumers follow it into the next generation. Certainly I can't help feeling that the intelligent consumer may now well decide to wait - maintain an 'options' approach - and see just how far things evolve - and in particular just how far Google evolves - before reaching into their wallet and committing to any new generation software or hardware. This is certainly what I plan to do.