Paul Bonner: On the Irrelevance of Microsoft

Microsoft and its Windows are becoming increasingly irrelevant, says our Paul Bonner, to everyone but MS CEO Steve Ballmer and his tribe. What is up with that?

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.


  • I have to say that this is a weak analysis of the business of Microsoft.

    Now, please understand that as a Mac user I am not exactly a Microsoft fan boy but for an analysis of Microsoft to leave out the xBox franchise, MS Office and somehow downplay that Windows does rule desktops and laptops, etc is a poor job.

    Yes, they have weaknesses (phones/tablets) and the the point of the rant may come true but the thought process of the article is poor and will sway no one who is not an MS hater. They are a very profitable company – is that not what they are supposed to do?

  • Thanks for the comment Mike. I agree that Microsoft has plenty of good things going for it — and $70 billion in annual revenue to prove it. But my article wasn’t about that. It was about a pathetically-wrongheaded statement by a CEO who appears to have learned nothing from the last decade, and whose once-invincible company now finds itself shut out of the hottest technology markets.

  • I just said this on Google+, where there is a firestorm going on around your piece, Paul. Seems to me that MS is in much the same situation as IBM was in 1988 or so. Too big to “seem” irrelevant, but very much into navel gazing. Further back, you recall DEC doing the same thing — never will be a market for more than 10 PCs, he said? MS can turn it around. I have always said it should split up into four divisions — turn itself back into a startup.

  • I couldn’t agree more Gina. You and I both remember Microsoft back when the world revolved around Redmond. Gates was the visionary, and Ballmer was the enforcer, and together they managed to keep every employee convinced that Microsoft was the underdog and its future was a risk long after Gates made the Fortune Billionaires list. But Gates departed, leaving the bouncer in charge, and ever since Microsoft has seemed a step or two slow. They’ve been playing a defensive game for years, trying to protect what they have and fighting the progress that’s going on around them.

    This column emerged from my belief that Microsoft’s refusal to abandon its vision of Windows Everywhere is both the primary cause of its failure to succeed on new platforms, and a significant disservice to its customers.

    Microsoft is in a far better position to come back from its doldrums than DEC ever was, or even than IBM was in the late 80’s. But it’s going to take a major shift in mindset to make that happen. If that shift doesn’t take place, Microsoft can look forward to a future of ever-slipping OS market share, browser market share, etc., until finally its patent troll division represents it major source of revenue. (It’s off to fine start in that area, of course, already making far more revenue from patent agreements with Android vendors than it does from Windows phone license fees.)

  • Paul, I would like to throw something out there that may support the “Windows everywhere” argument.

    Windows 8 (from my understanding) is a new interface that will mimic the same look across all three platforms (mobile, tablet and desktop). Now to me, that would a bit of a hinderance because of my job and background. But I asked my 70 year old parents, my younger brother who is a lawyer, and my youngest sister. I also asked several nieces and nephews (aged 12 – 22) this question: Would you buy a product that had the same interface/look/functionality whether it is on your phone or tablet or laptop/desktop?

    Everyone that I asked was enthusiastic about that possibility (which perplexed me), but then I realized that their use of the modern ecosystem does not vary much. Social Media, email, browsing, games and basic Microsoft Office functionality is about the extent of their world. If you give them the same look/feel no matter what device they use, wouldn’t that be an attraction?

    I would also begin to argue that most business environments include these same basics with proprietary systems on top. I know that this is a very simplistic viewpoint, but I believe that it is one that can be argued.

  • I hear what you’re saying Bill, and I’ll agree that in theory that might sound great. But Microsoft already tried forcing a full desktop-style Windows interface onto smart phones (Windows Mobile), and the result was horrifically bad. Now they’re going the other way, trying to graft their smartphone/Xbox interface onto desktops. I’ll be surprised if they’re any more successful with that than they were going the other way with Windows Mobile.

    Lots of people–myself included–have never gotten over having the ribbon interface shoved in our faces in Office. It may be pretty, but it gets in my way. I feel the same way about Windows 7 and the impending Windows 8 — I just want Windows to do its job quietly like any good plumbing should, and then get out the way and let me do mine. I don’t care what it looks like, I don’t it to be cool, and I certainly don’t want to act like my phone.

  • Funny that they have not yet done (or anybody for that matter), a TV set with a smart card input. Put in your subscribers card, plug in the co-ax cable joint, and boom, you have a Microsoft / XBox TV. Recognizes devices and folders and files on your network to play without having to use some pesky media aggregator with more cables.