July 11, 2008

wheretofore Vista? Microsoft moves to deal with the end of the Windows franchise

Since the famous Bill Gates Memo, around the same time as phishing and related frauds went institutional, Microsoft has switched around to deal with the devil within: security. In so doing, it has done what others should have done, and done it well. However, there was always going to be a problem with turning the super-tanker called Windows into a battleship.

I predicted a while back that (a) Vista would probably fail to make a difference, and (b) the next step was to start thinking of a new operating system. This wasn't the normal pique, but the cold-hearted analysis of the size of the task. If you work for 20 years making your OS easy but insecure, you don't have much chance of fixing that, even with the resources of Microsoft.

The Economist brings an update on both points. Firstly, on Vista's record after 18 months in the market:

To date, some 140m copies of Vista have been shipped compared with the 750m or more copies of XP in daily use. But the bulk of the Vista sales have been OEM copies that came pre-installed on computers when they were bought. Anyone wanting a PC without Vista had to order it specially.

Meanwhile, few corporate customers have bought upgrade licences they would need to convert their existing PCs to Vista. Overwhelmingly, Windows users have stuck with XP.

Even Microsoft now seems to accept that Vista is never going to be a blockbuster like XP, and is hurrying out a slimmed-down tweak of Vista known internally as Windows 7. This Vista lite is now expected late next year instead of 2010 or 2011.

It's not as though Vista is a dud. Compared with XP, its kernel—the core component that handles all the communication between the memory, processor and input and output devices—is far better protected from malware and misuse. And, in principle, Vista has better tools for networking. All told, its design is a definite improvement—albeit an incremental one—over XP.

Microsoft tried and failed to turn it around, security+market-wise. We might now be looking at the end of the franchise known as Windows. To be clear, while we are past the peak, any ending is a long way off in the distant future.

Classical strategy thinking says that there are two possible paths here: invest in a new franchise, or go "cash-cow". The latter means that you squeeze the revenues from the old franchise as long as possible, and delay the termination of the franchise as long as possible. The longer you delay the end, the more revenues you get. The reason for doing this is simple: there is no investment strategy that makes money, so you should return the money to the shareholders. There is a simple example here: the music majors are decidedly in cash-cow, today, because they have no better strategy than delaying their death by a thousand file-shares.

Certainly, with Bill Gates easing out, it would be possible to go cash-cow, but of course, we on the outside can only cast our augeries and wonder at the signs. The Economist suggests that they may have taken the investment route:

Judging from recent rumours, that's what it is preparing to do. Even though it won't be in Windows 7, Microsoft is happy to talk about “MinWin”—a slimmed down version of the Windows core. It’s even willing to discus its “Singularity” project—a microkernel-based operating system written strictly for research purposes. But ask about a project code-named “Midori” and everyone clams up.

By all accounts, Midori (Japanese for “green” and, by inference, “go”) capitalises on research done for Singularity. The interesting thing about this hush-hush operating system is that it’s not a research project in the normal sense. It's been moved out of the lab and into incubation, and is being managed by some of the most experienced software gurus in the company.

With only 18 months before Vista is to be replaced, there's no way Midori—which promises nothing less than a total rethink of the whole Windows metaphor—could be ready in time to take its place. But four or five years down the road, Microsoft might just confound its critics and pleasantly surprise the rest of us.

Comment? Even though I predicted Microsoft would go for a new OS, I think this is a tall order. There are two installed bases in the world today, being Unix and Windows. It's been that way for a long time, and efforts to change those two bases have generally failed. Even Apple gave up and went Unix. (The same economics works against the repeated attempts to upgrade the CPU instruction set.)

The flip-side of this is that the two bases are incredibly old and out-of-date. Unix's security model is "ok" but decidedly pre-PC, much of what it does is simply irrelevant to the modern world. For example, all the user-to-user protection is pointless on a one-user-one-PC environment, and the major protection barrier has accidentally become a hack known as TCP/IP, legendary for its inelegant grafting onto Unix. Windows has its own issues.

So we know two things: a redesign is decades over-due. And it won't budge the incumbents; both are likely to live another decade without appreciable change to the markets. We would need a miracle, or better, a killer-app to budge the installed base.

Hence the cold-hearted analysis of cash-cow wins out.

But wait! The warm-blooded humanists won't let that happen for one and only one reason: it is simply too boring to contemplate. Microsoft has so many honest, caring, devoted techies within that if a decision were made to go cash-cow, there would be a mass-defection. So the question then arises, what sort of a hybrid will be acceptable to shareholders and workers? Taking a leaf from recent politics, which is going through a peak-energy-masquerade of its own these days, some form of "green platform" has appeal to both sides of the voting electorate.

Posted by iang at July 11, 2008 09:26 AM | TrackBack

If it was up to the suits and bean counters, they would go cash cow, and invest in something else, probably gravel pits and coal mines. We know, however, how to create a secure operating system and a secure internet. If they want to stay in the computer business, they could follow that path.

But with Bill Gates gone, I expect the bean counters and suits to decide.

Posted by: James A. Donald at July 12, 2008 07:01 AM

Plan 9 (from Outer Space) or Inferno ?

We have lots of better OSes, it's getting Office and VB6 apps to run on them *sigh*

Posted by: Thomas Barker at July 12, 2008 07:57 AM
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