What Microsoft should do with its cash

Summary:comment Microsoft has US$49 billion lying around collecting interest. With such ample resources, what should Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer really do?

commentary Microsoft said last week it plans to hire 4,000 to 5,000 new workers and to increase research spending by about 8 percent, to $6.9 billion per year. The company also said it has $49 billion lying around collecting interest.

So What should Bill and Steve do with these wondrous resources? My suggestion: Start over.

Yes, I think they should build a new operating system, as much from scratch as necessary to solve Windows's most intractable problem: It's not all that easy to use and really isn't getting any easier. It's also bloated with features and controls that most people never need, further weakening its ease of use.

In short, we need a new Microsoft OS that's actually easy to use, runs easy-to-use applications, and adapts itself to each user's specific digital environment--the other computers, phones, music devices, video gear, still cameras, etc., with which most of us surround our PCs.

There's ample precedent for this. Apple has, after all, started over twice--once in 1984 with the original Macintosh and again more recently with the Unix-based Mac OS X. Of course, many would say Apple's whopping 2.3 percent market share would be more than ample argument against starting over.

Still, I think real ubiquity--that is, computers everywhere that everyone can use--will never be achieved with Windows as we know it today. If anything, Longhorn looks like it'll add complexity, not remove it.

We need an operating system that's smarter and presents a less bewildering array of options and choices than today's Windows. We need more of the OS--especially network setup and access controls--hidden under the hood, where users never have to see them.

We need an operating system optimized for home and small business users and another with enhanced functionality for large businesses, or maybe just one OS that self-configures itself based on what it sees on the network.

The various flavors of XP point in this direction, but neither Home nor Pro meet the basic requirement of being both simple and powerful. There's much in the Pro edition that home business users might find useful; Media Center Edition is built atop Pro, suggesting that advanced consumers would find the Home Edition pretty useless.

Could this "new" OS be built atop existing Windows code, perhaps with just a new graphical user interface? Probably. Might Microsoft be better off either starting from scratch or building atop a Unix kernel, as Apple did with OS X? Possibly. Should some of this code, the security elements, for example, be open source? Absolutely.

At the same time Microsoft is creating a new user interface, perhaps it could also do something about Windows's tendency to have problems that defy description, thus making it impossible to query the support database for a fix. Most of these seem to involve the system registry somehow, but RegEdit is not for the weak-hearted. It would be nice if Windows didn't periodically get so messed up that a reinstall of the entire OS becomes necessary.

It would also be nice to be able to move apps from one machine to another over the network and to be able to back up and individually restore applications. Perhaps some of the space on these huge drives we're getting could be used to host a clean disk image and installable copies of all the apps on the machine, allowing a quick reconfigure when it makes sense.

Perhaps the OS could automatically back up important files and provide easy synchronization between all of a person's PCs and PDAs and cellular phones.

This new MS OS should be designed to easily share information, especially media content, with other computers as well as other storage devices (TiVo DVRs, for example) and presentation devices like video monitors and speaker systems.

Whoops, this is beginning to sound like Mac OS X again.

The goal for this operating system would be as much perceptual as technical. The OS should be as well loved by its core users as Mac OS is loved by that community.

I'm not saying that everyone should be ecstatic over the new MS operating system. But wouldn't it be nice if at least some decent-sized group really loved it? I mean, couldn't Microsoft create an operating system that users really like? They haven't done so yet.

And if Microsoft doesn't want to take me up on this suggestion--and perhaps hire me to implement it--perhaps the spare MS cash could be used, as some have suggested, to bail out the State of California, perhaps taking Silicon Valley as collateral. Or perhaps Microsoft could do a real community service: Buy Oracle and put Larry out to sea. For good.

Topics: Operating Systems

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