Wow, a tough day for Windows.
BusinessWeek reports that HP, the world's biggest PC company, is so troubled by Vista's 'tepid reception' and Apple's resurgence that it is developing its own operating system. Meanwhile a New York Times columnist writes on his blog that Windows is "already dying a death by a thousand cuts."
Sounds pretty dire. But like the Steve Jobs obituary that Bloomberg accidentally sent out last week, this Windows epitaph may be a bit premature.
HP has a "Skunk Works" team of engineers secretly working on its own variant of Linux for desktops and notebooks, according to the BusinessWeek story. A company executive downplayed the R&D project, saying HP isn't devoting "large-scale resources" to it. And it turns out what they could really be working on is a set of driver and utilities that make it easier to use PCs running Linux with HP printers and digital cameras, backed by technical support. Given that many PC companies already sell a handful of systems with Linux, that doesn't sound like a big leap. Having used a Dell Latitude notebook with Ubuntu, I'd say enhancing the driver support is a necessary move.
Where HP really is spending R&D resources is on a customer experience group that aims to "develop software that would make Windows Vista easier to use, or bypass some of its more onerous features." That includes features such as the touchscreen technology found in its TouchSmart PCs, the QuickPlay utility that lets you work on e-mail or other common tasks while waiting for Windows to load in the background, and other graphical interfaces for improving music, movies and digital photography. None of this is that new. Asus and Lenovo also offer some systems with a Linux micro-OS that pre-boots, and Dell has announced it will offer a similar feature on some Latitude laptops. And, as the story points out, Dell's new Studio line includes a Dell Dock that cribs from Mac OS X. In fact, many PC players have offered docks for quickly accessing commonly-used applications over the years.
Google's new Chrome browser is hyped as a Windows killer, but setting aside the whole debate over whether (or when) the browser and Web-based applications will overtake Microsoft, The New York Times's Joe Nocera writes that "ever-so-gradually, the Internet is upending its business model just as surely as it has upended models for the music, television and newspaper businesses." His reason: No one really cares what operating system they use anymore. Users spend most of their time in browsers and Web-based mail clients, file formats are largely interchangeable, iTunes works on both Macs and PCs, and even many games--the last bastion of Windows users--can be played online.
I'm convinced that iTunes and the iPhone are not the only reasons Mac is gaining market share. The other is that people have come to realize that they do not really need Windows anymore. Any ol' operating system will do. The browser and the Internet have already rendered them largely irrelevant.
It's fairly obvious at this point that the software landscape is changing. The business of selling software on DVDs in boxes is clearly shrinking (Microsoft recently announced that its Money personal finance software would be sold online-only once the retail inventory runs out). The market is suddenly flooded with smartphones, Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), and netbooks running Linux (or Windows XP). And it does appear that after a brief honeymoon with Vista, the PC companies are once again experimenting with ways to take back some of that desktop real estate. But this has everything to do to with differentiating their PCs from the competition, and nothing to do with competing with Microsoft.
Windows is proving to be a durable and--despite all of the bad press for Vista--lucrative franchise. The truth is that browsers and Web-based applications have a long way to go before they will match the features, stability, security and off-line capabilities of the Windows Vista and Microsoft Office ecosystem. Furthermore Microsoft saw this coming a long time ago. The real question is: How well will they will respond to it? The latest indication is likely to come at its Professional Developers Conference in October, where Microsoft is expected to offer up an alpha of Windows 7.
The real bad news for Microsoft? If the first of its new ads are any indication, its $300 million marketing campaign with Jerry Seinfeld could be a bust.