Note: This article was written while on an airplane. Insert Cloud Computing pun here.
Post-racial, post-apocalyptic… now post-Microsoft? Yep, you got it folks. It hasn’t happened yet, but Microsoft is about to go the way of the Dodo, or more accurately, the way of the Kodak. How dare I say that? Relax, Seattle real estate agents. Rumor has it, Microsoft has half the GDP of Ireland in available spare cash (also known as twice the GDP of Cuba), so they’re not in any immediate danger. However, I see parallels here between them and my hometown’s Kodak and Xerox.
- Company had a good idea and the keen business sense to make the world adopt them as the standard and depend on them for decades. Such was the case for my hometown giants, and in business school I drew similar parallels about the major airlines. Eventually three more things happen:
- Without any real competition, the product quality begins to suffer. People get smart and realize they shouldn’t have to suffer with constantly-breaking parts and the service industry that’s set up to re-bandage them.
- Actual viable alternatives surface. Company believes they’re the strongest thing in the world and nobody can ever stop them.
- Company is slowly crushed in the marketplace by higher-quality alternatives, then ties its own ankles together with bureaucracy until there’s nothing left. (I once heard that Kodak has a rule: If three or more employees are anywhere together, the Moon included, and one person says an off-color joke, the other two employees have to fire him. True or not, it’s these stories of blindness that are the harbingers of doom for a company.)
It appears as though MS is at Stage Three. Tons of new companies, products, and concepts are surfacing and all they’ve managed to do is clean up Windows Vista. For most of my life, every night on the TV news, Xerox and Kodak fired a few thousand people, all the while betting big amounts on pre-doomed projects. Such will be the case until there’s nothing left but the sign on the door. At that point, we might see the Microsoft name glued on to bargain-basement holo-projectors or hovercraft, much as today’s lousy drug-store grade electronics carry the names of the the mighty Westinghouse and Akai of yore.
Why do I make all of these predictions in the first place? There’s no growth. They haven’t started a solid platform since they launched the Xbox in 2001. Why did that take off? Well, it was a fresh idea that wasn’t based on Windows (aside from a few tiny pieces of code). The two other “next big things” that Microsoft tried to launch in the past decade (Origami, Surface, and Slate, all decent ideas) failed, in my humble opinion, because they were based on the notoriously unreliable Windows. You can’t put a Yugo engine inside a sports car and expect it to have any real success. (We’ll see how their Sync automobile infotainment system sells…)
Yet another failed project was the Kin. Kin was a new cellphone concept that was supposed to be Microsoft’s entry into the low-end cellphone market, you know, those who couldn’t afford a fancy Windows 7 Phone-7… 7-Phone (or whatever it’s called this week). What happened here was, a bunch of marketing bobbleheads got together in a room and wrote a bunch of buzzwords (like “cloud,” “connected,” and “mobile Web”) on strips of paper. They then played “Pin the tail on the donkey” until their spouses called them home to dinner. $600 million dollars and a few TV commercials later, the public was utterly confused. (It was a cell phone that took pictures, sent them to a program on your PC, which you could then edit, but only send to friends who had Kin?) I think? It wasn’t based on Windows per se, but it required a PC for some odd features. TWO months later the whole thing was just a dream. Check one out on eBay if you’d like to own a piece of history. As Ron White would say, sometimes you just can’t cure stupid.
So what does this all mean for you? First off, no more scary computing experience. As we’ll discuss next, the new software companies (and even MS) are learning to create friendlier software – your user experience in the next decade will be more like using an appliance or a TV remote and less like cracking a safe. Whereas Windows and software from small-minded companies blew constant errors and expected the user to know what they meant, quality software is less cluttered, does what you want it to do, and leaves you alone. I deliver this ray of hope to terrified and frustrated Baby Boomers every waking moment of my life.
Niccolo Machiavelli observed that a populace is more inclined to accept an outside conqueror if the current, albeit native, ruler is corrupt. Frank Herbert’s sublime Dune novels admonish those who deify an incoming ruler: Just because there’s a new sheriff in town doesn’t mean everything will be perfect. New suns rising reveal new imperfections.
So what happens next?
At this point, the incessant crashes, hijackings, and bloatware infestations can be things of the past. There are now alternatives to Microsoft’s Windows. (There are many alternatives to MS Office as well, rendering that product inessential.) These alternative platforms come in three major flavors, but not without their own flaws…
Apple Mac OSX
Even the computer illiterate have caught on to the fact that Apple’s Macintosh is relatively flawless. They’re looking to Apple for a computing experience that doesn’t annoy, aggravate, and scare them while they’re checking their monthly email message or buying a rice cooker online. Even the Mac counterparts to popular PC software are better behaved on the Mac, because they’re held to a higher standard.
While Apple’s market share is indeed surging, they will never, ever, ever gain any major market share if they limit their operating system software to their own hardware. Sure, Apple hardware is far superior in my opinion to that of HP and all the rest, but by keeping their software so exclusive, Apple is shooting itself in the foot.
Guess what, guys. The iPod didn’t just succeed because it’s pretty and magical. The day Apple bit the bullet and called up HP to distribute its iPod (to retailers such as Radio Shack) was the day it became known outside small Mac-head circles. Calling up HP and offering them a copy of Mac OSX (physically possible as of 2006) to include on their computers might just be the ticket – on two conditions:
- HP wouldn’t gunk it up with the 50323423443959435943 gigs of spyware it puts on its Windows PCs today.
- HP wouldn’t offer OSX on its lower-end hardware, which isn’t exactly known for reliability.
- On second thought, they’re better off calling Dell.
Additionally, Apple has a great momentum going on as far as creating new paradigms, new markets beyond the desktop computer, which staves off corporate extinction for them. Their App Store, for example, is a great way to bring software developers and consumers together. However, they have recently taken some slack for its draconian nature, picking and choosing which applications they want to see on their devices, and not allowing any competing App stores on their devices. That’s all well and good, but someone else is bound to come along with a similar product line sans limites.
Apple has a few big decisions to make about its future. So Apple, it’s up to you…
Does 2011 spell the death of the desktop Operating System? I don’t believe it is a “buggy whip,” as Google seems to think. In other words, it’s not a product whose purpose is about to end. Desktop OSs are complex chunks of software and still necessary for all practical purposes. If the desktop OS is to live on into the next decade, as I believe it will, it’s too late for Microsoft; Windows has left a bad taste in too many people’s mouths. New startup ventures don’t even consider them relevant anymore. Windows 7 is a decent product and will do fairly well in the marketplace, but it’s only because the sting of competition has finally been felt.
Google products just “get it.” Google is usually very platform independent (their Web tools work on any brand or operating system), the user interface is very consistent among its products (Gmail, the incredible edible Google Voice, etc.), and their searches just plain work. Log in to Gmail and search for any word, and any email you’ve ever written containing that word is displayed. The same thing goes for Google Desktop Search. Type it in and there it is, no fuss no muss. Try searching for anything in Windows XP and you’ll find yourself cursing that little cartoon dog that pops up, interrogating you as to what type of file you’re looking for.
2011 will see the first PCs shipping with Chrome OS, a lean operating system provided by Google, instead of MS Windows. No more spyware or viruses, but don’t cheer just yet. Google’s view of the future is one where we all have low-cost Google appliances – little computers, touchscreens, and teevees that connect us to Google, and enable us to perform Google searches for anything our little hearts desire. Nothing stored on our devices, everything belonging to Google. Death to the old Emperor, all hail the new Emperor.
My prediction: Netbooks and basic PCs for the proletariat will be outfitted with basic Web-oriented operating systems (such as Chrome OS or Xubuntu) – simple, fast, and lean, just enough to get online. Power users will still have more powerful hardware and software available to them.
The New Emperors
Next, Apple and Google claim that they’re the most “open” companies – using public standards as opposed to proprietary ones, and so on. But as the The Register puts it, neither one “deserves the blue ribbon.” Both are employing half-hearted attempts to look more honest than MS, all the while trying to gobble up the entire Web populace for themselves (in terms of media sales, advertising, Browser usage, etc.). Mark my words, this will backfire on them. The article talks about Firefox (a wholly open-source volunteer-based program) as proof that the world can get along just fine without the major software companies.
Finally, there’s nothing unique to Apple!! Steve Jobs doesn’t actually have a magical reality distortion field or anything else magical for that matter. It’s simply a mix of common sense, learning from others’ mistakes, and knowing what customers want, mixed with a lot of sexy industrial design and marketing, and topped with a bitter dash of arrogance. Given enough money (and Danish designers) even I could make products that were just as stable and appealing as Apple’s. It simply involves a lot of common sense, REAL-WORLD in-the-trenches experience with real customers, and an instinct. Why nobody has even tried to truly emulate them is beyond me.
The Future’s Future: Opennness
In summary, this decade you will wave goodbye to the cryptic, alien-seeming computing experience of the past. No more frustrating driver errors, blue screens of death, random errors, hoax popups from Latvian pirates warning us of nonexistent Trojan viruses, in the hopes of stealing our identities. Our computers will soon obey our commands without backtalk and without paranoid “security” software to slow us down.
Again, my warning is that Apple and Google will let all this newfound praise get to their heads. While attempting to be saviors, they’ve created problems of their own (see Why the Cloud Sucks to learn more). Inside their product platforms you’ll find little Mactopias, but good luck trying to use your iPod in a way Apple doesn’t see fit.
The answer to this is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is another desktop Operating System that runs on most any hardware (Apple, Toshiba, Dell, even gas pumps, no joke) and is just as solid and enjoyable as any Apple or Google product. The difference is, Ubuntu is dedicated to a 100% open and honest experience – for example, you won’t have to “marry” your MP3 player to just one PC if you don’t want to, and any music and applications downloaded from them are free from DRM. Everything they do respects the user – both in the everyday experience and in the greater sense. Stay tuned for a future article explaining Ubuntu in-depth.
Finally, no matter how easy software ought to be, users can always learn more. While my job on the surface is to get people’s computers functioning properly, it’s really about getting people comfortable with their technology and teaching them how to “defend themselves” from confusing and misleading products. As always, give me a call if you’d like your own personal defensive driving course.
What about Bob?
While developing this article, I proposed my life cycle hypothesis to my friend Ron, who is an expert on both Kodak’s and Microsoft’s affairs. He agreed with the comparison and even made the same divination years ago. He warns that if Microsoft becomes as political an organization as Kodak, stifling innovation at every turn, it will indeed face the same fate. However, the future is not set in stone. Here’s what MS has going for it:
- Talent. I say it quite often, there are tons of brilliant and wonderful people at Microsoft. They have the ability to breathe longevity into that company, creating another Nintendo.
- They’ve got a heck of a lot of money. They could buy RIM/BlackBerry or any other solid company at any given time. Just today I noticed a banner ad for Microsoft Joomla – yes, they purchased the formerly obscure content management software. Furthermore, they can expand their Slate program, making it more than just a PC with portability awkwardly bolted on.
So folks, we’ll see you next time on Teknosophy. In the meantime, Bill Gates has gone off on a quest to cure viruses of a different sort than what he’s used to, and has left Steve Ballmer in charge. Nothing to worry about there…
Here’s a recent article from The Register that argues that companies should simply give away their war chests to investors after their useful life. Thought-provoking to say the least.
- Niccolo Machiavelli
- The Register
- Ron Trackey, Sr.
- Frank Herbert