Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Death of Windows

Once upon a time, there was a little company called Microsoft. They made Operating Systems. They sold these operating systems to businesses, who liked them. They like them because it helped the companies be more productive. The workers, liking the operating systems at work, brought them home with them because it was better to use at home what they used at work. In this way, the world of the personal computer opened up to the masses and the PC became as ubiquitous in the home as the television set.

The operating system in more than 95% of the PC's in the world was called "Windows."

For twenty years (and more) Microsoft was a company that specialized in providing businesses (and by extension all computer users) an operating system that was geared toward productivity. But there were other things people wanted to do with PC's so Microsoft helped make Windows the defacto OS of choice in gaming, and even more people bought PC's just so they could get some blob of pixels from the bottom of the screen to the top. Of course, gaming has evolved over twenty years, too, and that blob now is usually some scantily dressed, buxom, long-haired, thin-waisted, wide hipped, pointy-eared, white-haired realistic looking avatar running through a near realistic looking world spraying blood in all directions with a sword three times bigger than she is. But I digress...

With gaming on Windows, the PC was firmly cemented into the homes, places of employment and lives of the general public. Other improvements came and were added to the experience, but overall, productivity at work is what started the movement, and gaming made Windows the choice of operating systems world-wide.

And now, all of that will go away.

It seems like a stretch to say that the most popular operating system on the planet will die a horrible death of attrition, but it will because the makers of Windows apparently forgot why Windows became so popular in the first place: Business productivity. At the heart of every business lies the (not unreasonable) motive of profit. Profit is improved when employees are more productive, and decreases when they are not. It's a very basic, very straight-forward notion and is the foundation upon which businesses (at least SMART businesses) operate.

For decades Windows was designed around generally the same idea – a button that would give the user access to all of the things that made Windows go and all of the programs that could be used on Windows, all without cluttering up the screen. A cluttered screen is a distracting screen. Even though an icon can be right in front of you, if you have to search for it (and you do if you have a ton of them on your screen) that takes time away from actually doing work than if you can find it more quickly and far more easily through a guided effort. That's what the Start button was all about.

Now, back when the start button first appeared, it was reviled. It was hated. People loathed it. All ten of them. The others, who heard the new Windows (the first with the start button called Windows 95) was better, didn't much care about the contradictions of clicking Start to turn the thing off. They learned the new system just fine because for the most part, there wasn't really anything else VIABLE or AFFORDABLE out there. The few who grumbled were drown out by the many who came after and the PC took off. Especially when gaming came to Windows in a big way.

Over the years, the look and feel of Windows operating systems have changed, but the start button was a reliable consistency in how it gave access (sometimes better than others) to everything. And over the years, those ten people who bitched about the Start button became billions who loved it and were used to it. The PC sales started dropping off, not because people weren't buying them anymore, but because they already HAD ONE. This is called market saturation. You can't sell them to "new" people because there aren't as many people who don't have one as there are those who do. It's a replacement-level sales trend. It's not up or down. It's relatively consistent. One would think of this as an excellent and reliable source of revenue for the company that makes it, and one would be right.

But we live in a world where businessmen have become so delusional as to think that revenue has to INCREASE all the time, quarter over quarter. They're not content with a reliable, if flat, revenue stream. Windows was selling, but not selling with spectacular multi-digit market gains year over year. And for some insane reason, the folks who ran Microsoft saw that as a bad thing. So they kept putting out new operating systems in the hope that by doing that, they'd see market growth and revenue increases.

Then along came a tempting fruit from the Garden of Cupertino – the APPLE STORE!

This was basically something called "multimedia". Music and video. You don't get a lot of productivity from workers playing music and watching videos. But you do get a lot of people who like to watch videos and listen to music, so Apple's proprietary (and crappy) little iTunes program evolved into the Apple Store.

The Apple Store arose to prominence because of things called "smartphones". Smartphones were devices that relied on touching the screen and a thing called "finger painting" to start programs (now renamed "apps"), to move things around and to dial. Shortly thereafter came devices called Tablets. These were basically smartphones that didn't make calls over a cell phone network, and were larger. They, too, were designed for multimedia – videos and music mostly. They essentially replaced the primitive "media players" of the time because they could do things like simplistic games and e-mail that the media players couldn't do. But they were also horribly inefficient at tasks involving productivity. They were slower, had less capacity and the way one used them (touch) was slower and had more mistakes than using mice and keyboards.

In order to make these devices run, a new way of dealing with a touch screen was developed – actually several of them were. While the touch screen worked well for the smaller devices designed for things like watching videos and simple touch games, they weren't so good for things like writing reports, detailed e-mail, rendering video, burning DVD's and CD's and other things that most people were still doing on their PC's at home, and most especially at work.

Don't forget about businesses, here. That's important.

All of the focus driving businesses changed to the mobile user. These are the brain-dead dweebs slack-jawed and drooling at the videos they were playing on their smartphones and tablets and walking into fountains and poles and raising the cost of healthcare for everyone else who pays attention to where they're going. The mobile market was hip and cool and more importantly, had massive sales increases year over year. This is where Microsoft wanted to play, and hadn't because they stayed focused on businesses. They didn't get into the Smartphone revolution that heavily and only did it begrudgingly because they saw little return for the investment.

And then Google created Android – another OS designed for the tablets and smartphones – and, more to the point, created the Google Store to also sell "apps". And this was wildly popular because most people don't really like Apple. Pretty soon, Google was making a pretty penny because it takes a cut of profits for every app sold. So does Apple, and Apple becomes the largest company (by revenue, not user base) in the world. This is mostly because Apple takes a mandatory 30% of the sale price of everything it offers, and they cheat people illegally to boot (the e-book scandal), but the example was set in how to monetize mobility.

App sales and ad revenue.

This is actually a part of something recently called a tech company "ecosystem" whereby the maker of the operating system sells their own devices (or licenses them), hosts its own development system and its own distribution system for the content they deliver – content like music and videos and advertising. They charge for services as well. And it's all practically free of overhead once the initial investment in the infrastructure is made. Other people make the content. The company skims off the top in getting that content to the end user.

Now, Microsoft, with its eye on business, is kind of hampered in this. But because stockholders want unreasonable things, they decided to give it a shot and instead of going slowly and doing it right, they went quickly and did just about everything they could possibly have done wrong.

First they created the tablet called the Surface. There were several flavors of them, including an offering called the "RT", which given it's reception, seems to stand for "Rejected Tablet". But note that these were all TABLETS. Note, too, that some of them had the power of a laptop. It all sounded good in principle and maybe even on paper, but let's look at a tablet set up like a laptop and a laptop.

The Surface has a touch interface. A laptop doesn't. A Surface needs a stand to stand up. They had to build a stand in. If you touch the screen, it falls over. A laptop doesn't need its screen touched and stands up all by itself. A Surface has a detachable keyboard that can get lost or stolen or more easily broken. A laptop doesn't. A Surface comes with a limited variety of component options. A laptop's component options are much greater. With one exception (the more expensive one), the keyboards for the Surface suck when it comes to typing. Laptop keyboards are optimized for typing.

In short, the Surface was basically a crippled or at least handicapped laptop – all for the cost of a much better (specification-wise) laptop. Who the hell would want one? And the Surface RT didn't even have the dubious advantage of the full operating system's capabilities.

Now, we could go around and around about the prudence of making something like the Surface when there are much better tablets out there for less. But it's just a byproduct of the problem. The problem is that Windows is no longer focused on business.

Microsoft created Windows 8. And that's why Windows will go the way of the do-do bird:

  • 1. Windows 8 is designed primarily for smartphones and tablets. It has a touch-centric user interface.
  • 2. It has no start button (at least not like the one all previous versions of Windows had since 1995).
  • 3. Microsoft's smartphone has a market share that is negligible.
  • 4. Microsoft has very few offerings for apps, for either Smartphones OR PC's.
  • 5. Windows 8 (and 8.1) are all you can get for a PC these days due to Microsoft dedication to the idea of creating its own ecosystem.
  • 6. Most Windows users don't use Windows 8 or 8.1.
  • 7. There are a hell of a lot more Windows users now than in 1995.
  • 8. Valve is creating a SteamOS based on Linux.

None of these factors, by itself, spell the death of Windows. It's the combination of all of them that will do it. Like the perfect storm of happenstance, market pressures, short-sightedness, user expectation and business needs all will conspire to make Windows extinct no later than the end of the service life of Windows 7. And like a perfect storm of disaster, the combinations recombine in thoroughly predictable ways to become a disaster that is far, far worse than the sum of its influences.

This is how it works.

Microsoft sought to leverage it's billions (yes, billions with a B) of Windows users into nearly instant customers of the "Microsoft App Store". They did this by creating an all-in-one user interface for all devices – tablets, smartphones and PC's alike. They marketed it as being "easier on the end user to have them use the same operating system in all of their devices." By doing this, they could make up in their PC customer base what they lacked in variety of apps and low smartphone and tablet market share. It seems reasonable just as long as you don't ask anyone in Enterprise what they think of being forced into that "ecosystem" that is designed around DISTRACTION and ENTERTAINMENT.

And in this strategy, the seeds of the destruction of Windows were sown.

They utterly ignored the fact that NO ONE was demanding this all-in-one "convenience". People were used to using different (and more optimized for mobile) operating systems on their mobile devices. There was no call whatsoever for an all-in-one solution. The mobile devices significantly differed in form and general function. People naturally expected to have to interact with each in their own way. Creating an all in one solution for all different devices is directly analogous to putting the control system of a glider into the cockpit of a 787, and telling the pilots that the rest of the controls are in the restroom.

What's worse, they put a user interface optimized to deliver and display content that is distracting and entertaining into a device that has always been intended to be a productivity tool. Business didn't take to Windows like candy at an orphanage because employees could play games and watch video and listen to music and waste time. They did it because Windows focused on PRODUCTIVITY. Windows 8 isn't about productivity. It's strictly about delivering distracting and entertaining content to users at a fee. In this case, the fee is advertising – which is distracting to say the least.

So this undermines the entire purpose for having a productivity-based OS. That, businesses might get over, but the lack of the Start button's previous functionality will be the straw that breaks the camel's back. And again, it goes to productivity. In all OS's there has been a learning curve. But with the basic functionality drastically altered between the previous five Windows OS's and Windows 8 and 8.1, productivity will suffer greatly in the short term – and more in the long term. Yes, people can get used to doing things differently and that is the great suffering of productivity in the short term. Training end users to use it. But over the long term, the way it's been revamped, each thing that they used to do takes MORE CLICKS TO DO IT. It's not a lot of time for each instance of having to do it, but multiply it out and it will cost millions, if not billions, of dollars each year. If a million users take two seconds longer each day to do what they did before because of the design of the operating system, that's two million seconds wasted each day. That's 555 hours of lost productivity per day per million users.

There are billions of Windows business users.

Toss in the higher cost of Windows 8 and you have a perfect storm of Enterprise discontent.

A lot of businesses will turn to Linux. Linux is a free operating system that, like Windows, users must pay for any support they get. Linux is open source. Open source software is generally free or have considerably smaller license fees than their commercial counterparts. And those programs replicate to about 99% what all of the other programs that Microsoft (and other companies) can do. This means that, today, Linux is a viable replacement for Windows.

And Linux has the equivalent of a start button, so the learning curve is actually lower for the end user.

But it's Valve's SteamOS that will destroy Windows.

Enterprise is already upset with Microsoft Windows 8 and 8.1. The distractions they provide will negatively impact productivity. There is already a high capital cost in licensing, implementation and training for ANY new OS. Microsoft has proven itself unreliable in providing a consistent user interface experience, while Linux has maintained one at least as well as the pre-Win8 versions did. The adoption of Windows OS was initially based on what workers at work experienced on their computers, and as more businesses start shifting toward a less costly, more productivity-oriented OS than Windows 8, more and more end users will want to not have to switch between one and the other at home. They, too will start to switch to Linux, because, like before in the Windows adoption days, they'll have been taught how to use it at work.

That's where Valve's SteamOS will nail Windows. The ONLY thing that Windows has going for it is its gaming experience. It's the defacto gaming OS. Or it was until Microsoft decided to compete directly with the gaming industry by creating a distracting, entertainment-oriented OS to be put on productivity machines intending to absorb gaming revenue. Microsoft wants a cut of that revenue. The gaming industry isn't really excited about that.

Gaming will go rogue so they can maintain control over their games, and their wallets. Now, this may seem like a non sequitur. Windows 8 is, arguably, a better gaming platform. And it probably is. But if the gaming industry isn't selling games for Windows 8 (and given Windows 8 market share, they'd be idiots to do that) and as Enterprise embraces the distinct advantages of Linux in the face of growing disadvantages by sticking with a new Microsoft OS product, and as people start using Linux at home and finding out it's pretty much the same thing as they're used to, and they can play games, too, then Microsoft Windows is in major trouble.

There is no longer a distinct advantage to having Windows. It's not a productivity OS anymore (though it can be with more effort that takes away more productivity than what Linux offers today). It's not the exclusive gaming OS anymore (Though admittedly, SteamOS isn't live yet, but they're coming, and other gaming producers are coming out very interested in this model). It's less expensive than Windows. It's generally more secure than Windows. And software in open source is always less expensive (and works just about as well and in the same way) as anything commercially offered for Windows. Linux has the advantage of being the defacto choice in servers for a large part of the world, making integration into an existing infrastructure a snap.

In short, all of the disadvantages of having Linux have been (or will soon be) gone and Microsoft has shot itself in the testicles by trying to turn itself into another Apple or Google without making DAMN SURE that Enterprise was happy with them.

Worst of all, as Windows sales drop, their market share in tablets and smartphones will drop right along with it because it isn't large enough to sustain itself.

Microsoft took their eyes off of their roots, then cut them off to please their shareholders through a short-sighted, poorly reasoned business strategy. And like any plant deprived of its roots, Windows will surely wither and die.

The moral of this story is, always look ahead, but never ignore your roots.

The end.

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