15 Ways Microsoft Can Reinvent Itself for the Post-Gates Era

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Windows: How It Should Evolve

5. Make Windows a seamless desktop-Web experience. Desktop software has its advantages, and so do Web-based services. Future versions of Windows would be most powerful if they were a little bit of both. And maybe they will be: In February 2007, Bill Gates told Newsweek about an appealing, "user-centric" scenario in which Windows syncs all of a user's files, settings, fonts, and other data across the Web, so they're available at any computer that's at hand. (Live Mesh, currently available as a preview, seems to be an early incarnation of this vision.)

 6. Reboot Windows. In 2000, Apple replaced the creaky operating system known as OS 9 with OS X, an all-new, thoroughly modern OS. The daring gambit saved the Mac OS. Windows isn't as archaic as OS 9 was, but it's hard to imagine it staying viable for another decade without a new foundation. "MinWin," a stripped-down version of the Windows kernel, might be that fresh start, but scuttlebutt says MinWin is not part of Windows 7, Vista's successor.

7. Split Windows in two. Long-term, the world needs a fundamentally new version of Windows. But the uproar over Microsoft's plans to kill off Windows XP shows that lots of folks just want a version of the OS that's familiar and compatible. The company already sells more than 20 versions of the operating system--so why not make both groups of people happy by offering both a legacy edition and a Windows that's new from the ground up?

8. Make Windows more boring. MS-DOS was a simple, unglamorous piece of software that focused on being a solid platform for applications from Microsoft and other companies. As Windows has added tools for digital photography, entertainment, and communications, it's become more complex and less satisfying. I'd love to think that Microsoft might go back to basics with future versions of Windows, but one of the first public demos of Windows 7 involved a new version of Windows Paint. That's not a great sign. Microsoft should concentrate on making the OS more reliable and secure, and easier to use, rather than adding features to a paint program.

9. Make Windows Mobile the flagship. It's obvious that tomorrow's PC will be the descendant of today's smart phones. That's why Apple reinvented OS X as a mobile operating system for the iPhone. And if Windows can't adapt to that world, it'll die. But Windows Vista is too bloated to run well on cheap laptops, let alone phones, and there's nothing cutting-edge about Windows Mobile 6.1. Rumor has it that the first edition of Windows Mobile rewritten from scratch will be version 8, which supposedly won't show up for years. Wouldn't sooner be better?

Applications: Office and Beyond

10. Leapfrog Google Docs.
Once upon a time, Microsoft productivity apps such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint were also-rans compared with blockbusters like WordPerfect, 1-2-3, and Harvard Graphics. Then Microsoft earned much of its dominance of the office market the old-fashioned way: By building better software. Today, it shouldn't be all that hard to build an online suite that trumps Google Docs--and nobody's in a better position than Microsoft to try.

11. Bundle Office with an online suite. Microsoft has approached the world of online productivity so cautiously in part because it's worried about murdering one of its cash cows: The same people who pay hundreds of dollars for a copy of Office think that online suites should be free. Why not give those paying customers a great Web version of Office as part of the deal? It might help show the world that essential Net-based tools are indeed worth real money.

12. Make the Office file formats indispensable on the Web.
The file formats for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are among Microsoft's most valuable properties--even the Office 2007 ones that the company has published as open standards. They'd be an even more powerful asset if they were as widely used on the Web as Adobe's omnipresent PDF. How about a unified Office file viewer--ideally with some basic editing features--that would be a cinch to find, install, and use? (Office Live Workspace does this, sort of, but it's too complicated to become pervasive.) This would sure make more sense than XPS, Microsoft's half-baked response to PDF.

13. Take a studio approach to software.
Microsoft Game Studios, the company's game title arm, is run as a loose federation of developers, some started by Microsoft, some acquired by it, and some independent. Examples include Bungie (Halo), Ensemble (Age of Empires), Rare (Viva Pinata), and Lionhead (Black and White). End result: The average Microsoft-published game is arguably more interesting than the average Microsoft-published productivity application. If the company applied the same system to productivity software, it might unleash an explosion of creativity.

14. Build Internet Explorer on top of Firefox. Okay, I've suggested this before. I understand that it remains an idiosyncratic and unlikely proposition. But it still seems like a good idea to me. There may have been a time when IE was a strategic asset for Microsoft, but today it's more of an albatross. So why not dump it for a leaner, meaner "Internet Explorer" that's really the supremely customizable Firefox under the skin?

15. Be a leading iPhone developer. "To create a new standard takes something that's not just a little bit different...It takes something that's really new and captures people's imaginations," said Bill Gates in 1984. He wasn't talking up a Microsoft product--he was raving about the then-new Apple Macintosh. And despite the fact that the Mac competed head-on with PCs running DOS (and later Windows), Microsoft was smart enough to establish itself as a major Mac developer. (It even introduced Excel on that platform first.) If Steve Ballmer were to embrace the iPhone with the same enthusiasm, Microsoft would make money and learn things that could make Windows Mobile more formidable.

Got more recommendations for the post-Gates Microsoft? Share them by leaving a comment. Microsoft may well manage to remain the world's largest software company for years to come, but it's going to need all the good ideas it can get.

Harry McCracken is a former editor in chief of PC World. He's developing his own technology site, technologizer.com.

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