When the first Windows operating system was introduced by Microsoft, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, John Hughes was introducing touching teen stereotypes in "The Breakfast Club," and a young singer named Madonna was hitting the road with "The Virgin Tour." Twenty five years later, Windows, Reagan, Hughes, and Madonna are still very much at the center of our tech, political, and pop culture discussions.
Since we are a technology site, however, let's take a moment to focus on the sheer breadth of Bill Gates' achievement with Windows and to ask: how long can this go on? Now in its seventh major version, Windows can be found on about 9 out of every 10 of the world PCs, its server version is on 70 percent of the world's servers, and, of course, Gates is the richest person in America, and, until recently, the world. Microsoft is the world's largest software company thanks largely to the Windows franchise and has extended its products to everything from gaming consoles and mobile phones to corporate financial software and databases.
But there are cracks in the Windows business, some self-made, some the result of too much success. As Microsoft watchers look back in amazement at the last 25 years, the old Chaucer expression "There is an end to everything" is starting to look more and more relevant to a company that for many years looked invulnerable.
Competitors like Apple that once seemed like a blip on the radar are now seeing huge growth in computer sales--computers that are not shipping with Windows. In fact, numbers from IDC released last month had Apple growing at eight times the rate of PC competitors during the third quarter. There are also been signs that devices like the iPad, with their new form factor, are making a shift in people's decision about whether to buy something more traditional, like a laptop. Not to mention the looming threat that is Google's Chrome OS, something that Gates compared to Linux in an interview with CNET last year, but that could still cut a dent out of Windows PC sales when it arrives as soon as next month.
No, this is not a "sky is falling moment" for Microsoft, but it could be a defining one as it moves further from the leadership of Gates into the era of CEO Steve Ballmer: Microsoft must correct its miscues in the mobile market, and define just how it will keep customers as they move more applications to the "cloud" computing environment.
To understand why that market share number is in jeopardy over the next few years, one has to look at other challenges facing Windows as a platform. Moving 25 years of customers along to new things isn't easy, of course. Generations of old software must have some sort of upgrade path. In effect, the bigger you get, the more baggage you have to drag along. And the disappointment of Windows Vista didn't help matters.
But one of the most immediate threats is existential, the notion of what exactly is a personal computer. Is it a desktop or notebook device built around Intel's ubiquitous x86 semiconductor architecture that runs Windows software? Or is it something else? Is it a device as small as a smartphone? Or is it something more like the iPad? Or is it all of the above? Does it run on x86 or the increasingly popular ARM architecture? And how exactly does Microsoft maintain control of that heterogeneous world? … Read more