If Windows Is a Dead End, What's Next?

Microsoft's Apparent Strategy for a Post-Windows World

The question is whether that future will involve Microsoft. A look at Windows 7 may lead you to answer no, but MacDonald notes that Microsoft has its hand in all these areas and is making some moves that indicate it actually gets it: "They see these trends." But Microsoft can't suddenly shift, given the billions of dollars of revenue it gets from Windows. Plus, as the Vista release showed, users hate it when their applications stop working due to an OS upgrade, even when the reason is legitimate (such as fixing Vista's security model). That's why MacDonald sees a decade-long transition ahead, one that will become apparent to most people in 2011 as apps reach a tipping point away from the client OS-centric model we all have today to a services-centric model now emerging.

Of course, others see this trend as well, as evidenced by Google's Internet-delivered apps; Adobe's its multiplatform AIR and Flash RIA delivery technologies; and efforts by Amazon.com, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sun to get into the cloud provisioning game.

While Microsoft is mum on its plans, there are several hints that at least its researchers see the coming shift way from the fat client OS and are investigating technologies to make the transition.

Perhaps the most significant is Silverlight 2, which will compete with Adobe's Flash and AIR. In the early days of the Internet, Microsoft created ActiveX, a technology that allowed apps to run in a browser and communicate with the client and the server. ActiveX runs only on Internet Explorer, which was fine when all PCs ran IE and the Apple Macintosh looked to be a dead platform. But the Mac is now ascendant, and in the Windows world, IE is facing stiff challenges from Firefox and Google Chrome. So an IE-dependent technology has become a liability, cutting out perhaps a quarter of a Web app's potential users. MacDonald expects ActiveX to fade away, another legacy technology made irrelevant by the new PC order.

In contrast to its proprietary ActiveX strategy, Microsoft plans to have Silverlight run on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux -- and, notes Gartner's MacDonald, even on iPhone and Google Android devices. It will run in Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, and other browsers. Plus, like Adobe's AIR, Silverlight 2 won't even need to run in a browser. "Silverlight gives you 80 percent of .Net, at 20 percent of the footprint," MacDonald notes. All this means that Silverlight can be the RIA delivery method in almost any context: in a fat client OS, in a thin client, on a mobile device, and so on. "Microsoft can monetize non-Windows platforms if they do this right," MacDonald contends.

But Microsoft's toolkit to make the transition to the new PC order goes beyond Silverlight. Microsoft's entry into virtualization hypervisors with Hyper-V is an obvious tool. So is the application virtualization technology Microsoft got when it bought Softricity in 2006. And then there's Azure, the new cloud services platform Microsoft announced last week, which seems to be based on the popular SharePoint collaboration platform. The use of that platform could help tie the emerging cloud to the existing desktop world, giving both Microsoft and enterprises a transition point.

There are several projects within Microsoft to explore how to keep Microsoft technology central to a post-Windows world, notes MacDonald. One is the Midori effort to create a componentized OS freed of all the DOS and NT legacy that has a stranglehold on today's Windows. And Microsoft's Singularity project is another attempt to explore a reinvention of the OS in today's context.

The question remains whether Microsoft can take these pieces and put them together in a compelling way. Can Microsoft both break from the past and help enable the transition away from it? Or will Bill Gates' old vision of PCs being desktop mainframes -- or the need to keep selling bloatware every few years for the huge cash infusion it brings -- get in Microsoft's way?

In other words, is Windows 7 the last of the dinosaur Windows versions, or are there more to follow?

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