Wow, talk about old school. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer went all the way to Las Vegas last month to tell a CES keynote audience something that I first heard Bill Gates say, in almost exactly the same words, more than 20 years ago.
He said, “nothing is more important at Microsoft than Windows.” Come on.
Bill Gates was being pretty gutsy when he made that statement in the late 1980s, well before Microsoft’s newly released Windows 3.0 crushed IBM’s OS/2 dreams. That was the 32-bit OS Microsoft and IBM were supposedly working on together before Microsoft went all Windows, all the time.
That’s why Ballmer’s statement, coming in 2012, strikes me as merely pathetic.
If the last five years have taught us anything, it is this: Windows might still be the most important thing ever for Microsoft, but it now is increasingly irrelevant for the rest of us.
Microsoft appears to remain so fixated on its vision of Windows Everywhere that it can’t see that the rest of the world views that prospect with at indifference at best.
The too-obvious-to-ignore proof is the mobile phone market, where through Q3 2011, Windows 7.x phones had captured less than a 2 percent market share. Meanwhile, Android and iOS combined to rack up about 1.5 million new activations per day. Per day!
That’s an awful lot of people resisting the siren call of Windows.
The equally obvious rejoinder is that Windows remains dominant on the desktop. And it does…sort of. But I have to suspect that’s as much due to indifference and inertia as to the allure of Windows.
If a shiny new Windows was all that appealing, Windows XP would be a distant memory. After all, Microsoft has tried kill XP twice — first in 2007 with Windows Vista, and then again in 2009 with Windows 7. But as late as August 2011, the nearly 10-year-old XP still maintained half of the 76% desktop share it had reached at its peak in January 2007. Windows 7’s share finally surpassed XP’s in August, but you have to suspect that its rapid ascendance in 2011 was driven more by its being the only option available for most new PCs than by upgrades.
Neither business users nor home users rushed to replace Windows XP, because they didn’t need to. XP was adequate. Windows 7 may be more advanced in every way, but XP was up to the task of running Outlook and Office and a browser. A prettier desktop just wasn’t worth the inconvenience and cost of an upgrade for most buyers, and Microsoft’s “this time, we’ve really fixed all the security holes” message had just gotten old.
Microsoft clearly intends Windows 8, due to be released late this year, to shake the desktop out of its doldrums. Windows 8 features a radically new, Windows Phone 7-like tiled UI, plus touch screen support and an appstore of its very own. Old-timers like me remember how well tiles worked out in Windows 1.0, but Microsoft seems to think it’ll get the youngsters excited.
Windows 8’s new UI represents a bold move, no doubt, but the underlying premise behind the move–that the market wants an exciting new version of Windows–may be faulty. IDC certainly thinks so, predicting last month that, “Windows 8 will be largely irrelvant to the users of traditional PCs, and we expect effectively no upgrade activity from Windows 7 to Windows 8 in that form factor.”
Upgrading to the latest version of Windows is not essential any more. For a long time — for as long as desktop applications were the only game in town — it was, largely because as the only sheriff in town, Microsoft was able to introduce “innovations” that rendered previous versions obsolete with astonishing rapidity. That changed when, despite Microsoft’s best efforts, all the interesting things you could do on a PC were suddenly being delivered through a web browser connected to a standards-driven realm where propriety messes like ActiveX were not welcome.
I suspect that Steve Ballmer and company see Windows 8 as a means to correct that situation and shift the spotlight back onto real Windows apps. If they succeed in that, they can pull out all the old tricks to make sure the upgrade gravy train runs on schedule once again. But looking at their record since 2007, I don’t have any more faith than does IDC that Mr. Ballmer’s dreams will come true.
In the world of 2012, Windows–despite its still massive market share and license revenues–has become largely irrelevant. It is just plumbing, representing neither the journey nor the destination of anyone’s computing activity. By clinging onto the notion that “nothing is more important than Windows,” Steve Ballmer is on the verge of making Microsoft equally irrelevant.