Saturday, April 12, 2008

Is Windows Collapsing?

Yesterday, Gartner's warning of doom for Windows echoed across the Internet. Back in 1993, IBM faced a similar "doomsday scenario," its Mainframe business was collapsing. It was hemorrhaging money. It was called a dinosaur, a has been. In 1996, Apple was thought of headed towards the grave, a year later Jobs returned and it has been a renaissance for Cupertino.


Their advice to Microsoft took several forms, but one road they urged the software giant to take was virtualization. "We envision a very modular and virtualized world," said the researchers, who spelled out a future where virtualization - specifically a hypervisor - is standard on client as well as server versions of Windows.

"An OS, in this case Windows, will ride atop the hypervisor, but it will be much thinner, smaller and modular than it is today. Even the Win32 API set should be a module that can be deployed to maintain support for traditional Windows applications on some devices, but other[s] may not have that module installed."

Backward compatibility with older, so-called "legacy" applications, should also be supported via virtualization. "Backward compatibility is a losing proposition for Microsoft; while it keeps people locked into Windows, it also often keeps them from upgrading," said the analysts. "[But] using built-in virtualization, compatibility modules could be layered atop Win32, or not, as needed."

Someone forgot about Wine.

Let's take a step back. This is pure fiction, one that would be so insane that to do it, would really shatter perception. Let Microsoft photocopy Apple's design process and steal from Cupertino's playbook. Shift Windows to a Unix foundation and keep the media layer like DirectX going. Heck, if they really wanted to rub it in, they'd use Linux. But BSD Unix would perhaps be more apt, given the License.

What's the possible uptake to this?

  1. Unix is far more inherently secure, with sockets and firewalling. I really hate all those antiviruses and trojans and worms and will not shed a tear if those guys ever close shop. Increased Unix security prevents (but not wipes out) a lot of problems Windows has today from propagating. 
  2. Microsoft gets to keep the media foundation of its Operating System going like in Apple's playbook, it becomes a valued-added service atop Unix. Microsoft still gets to control this space. They get to keep it proprietary. 
  3. Microsoft doesn't need to completely throw away its development environment. .Net, bet you it wouldn't be too much trouble to get it going. and here's the really good part:
  4. Wine can be the Rosetta of Windows. Legacy applications need not be a burden. Wine exist to run them. Heck, Photoshop can run on wine. With a little more help from Microsoft, bet you things can go a lot smoother.

Going forward, a Unix-based foundation can jump start an aging Windows franchise. BSD doesn't require you to return updates to their source tree. Microsoft can play with this technology. Wine is there for legacy apps.

On the other hand, the use of Linux as the foundation for a future Windows lets Microsoft accelerate software development. Linux already has drivers for most of the PC world. Microsoft wouldn't need to worry that driver X for common device A would be working. It also gets to play more in areas where it is playing second fiddle like the high performance computing market. Think of Microsoft Windows-Linux as an unlikely Marriage but would cost less to do and execute as say, a merger between Microsoft and Yahoo but the business up take would be staggering. And the controversy that would create would certainly be a shot that echoed across the planet.

Given Microsoft's (in my humble opinion, foolish) desire to play second-fiddle to Google on the Ad space, with their persistent play for Yahoo, "Is Microsoft still interested in the Operating System business?" 

The marriage plans between Microsoft and Yahoo should in fact have MSFT shareholders rattled, more than Yahoo's. How can it not be billions of dollars wasted in an effort to catch up with Google? 

Think AOL-Time Warner. 

The length of time, the energy wasted in integrating the two companies would give Google all the space it needs to take even broader steps in the mid term. And for what? throw away all of Microsoft's money? 

At the end of the day, Microsoft will have to decide what exactly is it now? Is it a conglomerate? Is it the world's most powerful software developer? Is it the company that produces the world's most dominant operating system? Is it an Advertising company?

This whole mess that Microsoft is in, isn't a question of whether or not there are smart people in Redmond. It is a question of how creative are they? And where do they see Microsoft is and will be. If they are not going to play in the Operating System market as aggressively as they used to, perhaps it is time to spin it off, and while they're at it, maybe they could spin off XBox as well, just like the rest of the company and just do the advertising game. If Microsoft is the new IBM or at least the IBM of the 1970s and 1980s, then it needs to become the IBM of the 1990s and this first decade of the 21st Century. 

Is virtualization the key for Microsoft? VMs will be big business in the next few years. Microsoft will be part of that business. But to keep the Windows desktop franchise going, VMs will not be the answer.

When all is said and done, is Windows collapsing? If it was, it is going to be a slow agonizing death that would take years, given the sheer dominance of Windows' market share. That is assuming everything is stagnant. My bet is that it keeps going. If Microsoft was really going shock the world, going Unix would be it. Technologically feasible, you bet it. Pure fantasy? what do you think?