24 March 2013

How many lifeboats are on the MS Titanic?

There was a day when consumers had nearly zero control of the technology market. Sure, there were Mac evangalistas, bouncing Amiga balls, and flocks of Linux penguins - but mostly there was a swarm of lemmings. When we purchased a computer it was almost always the Windows machines we used at the office. Those days are becoming distant history thanks to a 180 turn where the lemmings are finally forcing their favorite technology in the office, which may force Microsoft to do a similar turn to save their company.

No question, the folks in Redmond still control the server room. They are powering our hosts, databases, email communications, workstation operating systems, install mechanisms, web browser, policy control and even the primary office software. This domination is so complete that running any operating system other than Windows will limit your network support pool drastically, so it takes a brave soul to install Red Hat or OS X Server today. (Do those products even still exist? Who knows, right?)

Most will argue, accurately, that Google makes their money on one thing: Advertising. Microsoft's ATM is nearly as predictable with Windows and Office providing the bulk of their income. In fact, their utter domination of the corporate world and ability to enter new markets, like gaming and accessories, came thanks to just one piece of software: Windows.

Unfortunately for the thousands of employees of Steve Ballmer, Windows is dying and Microsoft is the one that dug the grave. They saw the iceberg coming so they built this entirely new touch-based, flat, boxy and somewhat eccentric "Metro" interface that they are going to force on every customer, on every piece of hardware regardless of whether it makes sense.

Buy a new Windows computer and you will be forced you to use Metro from the moment they start with no way to skip to a standard desktop. Xbox 360's are already using a version of Metro that is, arguably, slower and more difficult to use than they already maligned Sony PlayStation OS. The new Xbox 720 will supposedly be running an only somewhat-edited version of Windows 8. Surface tablets are Windows Metro as well, though most software, including the version of Office it comes with, run in the old desktop interface that is very anti-touch and fully confuses Microsoft's vision. Windows Phone is perhaps the ideal piece of hardware to use Metro since it is only a touch interface without keyboard, mouse or Kinect to get in the way and is the location Metro makes the most sense. Microsoft is so focused on making certain that their operating system continues to have a monopoly that I think even a Microsoft keyboard and mouse forces you to move flat rectangles around just to open the box they come in.

[The Windows UI is not called Metro anymore. Apparently some company in Europe that does design work already owned the trademark and Microsoft was unwilling to cough up the money to use a name that everyone still calls the tombstones we see when we turn on our Windows Phone. Compare that to Apple who just starts using the name iPhone despite the fact that Linksys already had an "iPhone" of their own but Steve Jobs ripped the name away from them. WTF, Microsoft? Did you buy your cojones under those tombstones?]

Microsoft refuses to release Microsoft Office for any platform other than Windows and OS X in their belief that somehow we will all eventually abandon our iPads, Kindles and Nexus devices to return to Windows. Clearly they have taken up residence in Steve Jobs' reality distortion field because Android is now sold on more consumer devices than Windows and iOS combined. Tossing a web-based version of Word to placate us is like tossing scraps into the neighbors chicken coup. Thanks but no thanks.

Steve Ballmer is apparently unaware that consumers are realizing we not only do not need Windows but we don't Microsoft Office, either. You can get countless word, spreadsheet and presentation apps for iOS and Android that all work beautifully on your non-Microsoft operating system. The world is quickly developing a tablet and smart phone only universe where our desktops are sent off to recycling.

Certain areas of the corporate world are clearly going to remain wholly in Redmond's camp. Their SQL Server database system is the ideal platform for most businesses. Windows Server will continue to dominate in the geek closets, provided they remove that stupid Metro interface from it. Microsoft Dynamics, Exchange Server, terminal server and Outlook seem wholly entrenched in corporations. However, consumers are not touching Microsoft code anymore which leaves business as their primary customer. Today.

Tomorrow is where things start to look really bad for Microsoft. They are talking non-stop about the "consumerization of I.T." which is their way of saying that the peasants have taken the technology strategic plan Microsoft held and burned it with their Kindle Fire. With end users pushing their favorite hardware and operating system to be their interface and the world moving to a cloud universe that Microsoft is only barely started to rise into, Ballmer has found himself at the helm of just another software company.

There is still time to fix the disaster on the Seattle east side.

When the information superhighway first started Netscape became the most important technology company on the planet and Microsoft's Windows was about to be decimated by the Navigator web browser. Gates not only made a competing product but gave away Internet Explorer for free and included it in every copy of Windows. Microsoft saw the same situation in the game console market where Sony and Nintendo owned every inch of it. They responded with an Xbox product that they sold below cost and, even against two very profitable companies, they were able to steal the market away.

In both of these examples Microsoft took a chance and lost money to win a market. They currently believe that Windows is still a monopoly that can win the tablet battle so they refuse to abandon their huge profit margins. Ballmer needs to wake up. Would anyone be using Internet Explorer if Microsoft had charged money for it? No, because Netscape was a much better product. Will anyone buy a Surface RT if it costs the same as an iPad? Have you seen the sales numbers? Will anyone upgrade to Windows 8 when it is a disjointed mess that is unusable in a corporate environment? Even Windows Phone, which is what Metro works best on, is not making a dent in the Android army.

Microsoft needs to sell the Surface at Kindle Fire prices if it truly wants to defeat the iPad. They need to give the Windows Phone OS away if they have any hope of unseating Android. They need to design Windows for the laptop and desktop that does not require re-training all employees on how to use a computer. And perhaps most important of all, Redmond needs to release Microsoft Office for every platform imaginable before we realize that we do not need Microsoft at all.

The possibility that consumers no longer need Microsoft combined with moving their non-Windows and non-Office products into the corporations is what makes Microsoft's situation so similar to the Titanic. If Microsoft is going to survive then they better start tossing their profit margin over the side to make the ship light enough to turn in time. Unfortunately, based on the direction they are going today their ship will start sinking any moment now.