Windows isn't dying, it's just becoming irrelevant

Windows isn't dying, it's just becoming irrelevant

Summary: Just as the stone ax gave way to one made of bronze, the Windows-powered PC must now give way to better, more customized, more refined tools.

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My ZDNet colleague Matt Baxter-Reynolds yesterday penned an excellent piece on Microsoft's failed "Windows 8 Project" and how the death of the PC could also be the death of Windows. While I agree with Baxter-Reynolds that Microsoft is going to face some serious challenges over the coming years as the era of the PC wanes, where he sees death as awaiting the platform, I see irrelevance as its ultimate fate.

See alsoProblems facing supersized iPads and iPhones

I don't say this lightly either. Like Baxter-Reynolds, my career has, for several decades, been firmly rooted in the PC industry, and at the core of that has been Windows. And like Baxter-Reynolds, I also possess the superpowers/voodoo/magic/power needed to make PCs do what I want them to do. Give me an IT-related problem, and with a little time and adequate resources, I can put together the PC equivalent of the cotton gin.

I can safely say that I don't want to see the end of the PC. Ideally, I want things to stay just as they are for a long time.

But they're not, and people who think that the downturn in PC sales is temporary, or those who think that Windows is just as relevant and popular as it ever was, are either kidding themselves, deluded, or just desperately trying to plaster over the cracks in a crumbling ecosystem.

But as with most things in life, wishing for something doesn't make it so.

At a time when interest in and demand for consumer electronics is at its highest, Windows should be reaping the rewards of decades of groundwork. But it isn't, and both earnings and sales are suffering.

So, what's behind the swing from relevance to irrelevance? I see several factors at work.

Note that for the purposes of this piece I'm going to exclude any effect that the popularity of Windows XP, or the unpopularity that Windows Vista, might have had on Windows, as well as ignoring the effect that Microsoft's major Windows 8 paradigm shift might have had.

Choice

Microsoft flourished at a time when there was little in the way of competition. Apple's Mac OS, which was released a year before Windows, didn't offer much in the way of competition, and neither did Linux, which came on the scene in 1991.

Nowadays there's a lot more choice. In addition to direct desktop and notebook competition from OS X, there's Android and iOS kicking up a stir on the mobile front. And while the PC market is effectively saturated, demand continues to be strong for smartphone and tablets.

Choice invariably leads to the fracturing of markets, and this is what we are seeing happen with the PC.

Price

Since people only have so much cash to spend on tech, while shiny new smartphones and tablets are grabbing consumer attention, PCs are being shouldered out of the limelight.

At a time when everyone – consumers and enterprise buyers alike – are price sensitive, a $300 slate or smartphone is far more compelling than a $500 PC.

Also, at a time when component prices are being pushed into the dirt, the Windows operating system has become the most expensive part of most PCs. This is not the case for OS X, Android, and iOS devices. Whiule OEMs can put pressure on the supply chain to keep hardware prices as low as possible, there's not a lot they can do about the cost of Windows.

A shift of focus from the OS to the browser and cloud services

Once upon a time, when you wanted to do something on a PC, you fired up an app. Now, when people want to do something, they fire up a web browser and type in a URL.

The thing about web services is that they are platform agnostic. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, along with countless other web services, do not depend on being viewed from a Windows PC. In fact, many are being increasingly optimized for non-PC platform.

What people want nowadays is not Windows, but a connection to the Internet.

Why pay for CPU power, RAM, and storage when you can rent – or use for free – a server on the web?

Moore's law

Thanks to an ever-increasing supply of computational cycles, RAM, and storage, smartphones and tablets are shifting from being "companion devices" to standalone devices capable of doing real work. What once needed a PC can now be done on a smartphone or tablet.

Even I'm seeing the effect of this. Unless I'm doing some very specific tasks – rendering high-end video, carrying out complex photo processing, doing some sort of heavy computational lifting – I can use my iPhone, iPad or Nexus 7. And even when I need more power than post-PC devices can offer me, less and less do I need a high-end, monster PC.

Low-cost post-PC devices have become "good enough" even for content creation.

Simplicity, or lack of it

Bottom line, some people don't have the time, energy, inclination, experience, or know-how to make Windows do what they want it to do. I know that there are times when I don't.

And I'm not alone.

When I read tweets from long-time tech veteran – and the person who, unbeknownst to him, was responsible for inspiring me to write about tech – Jon Honeyball about his struggles getting a printer working on Windows 8, that's a clear indication to me that the Windows ecosystem is broken. Sure, printers have always been the spawn of the devil, but given the ease with which I can connect my smartphones and tablets to a whole host of devices – from fitness wristbands to my car stereo – hooking a PC up to a printer should be a snap.

Over the two decades that I've been helping people make the most from their PCs, I've lost count of the number of times that I've told people to delve into the Windows registry or run some arcane command that, to them, looks like it might summon the undead. I thought I was helping, but in the long run I was part of the problem. I was helping a bloated, convoluted, increasingly user-unfriendly product retain its dominance.

The bottom line

Windows, along with the PC, is going to be around for years to come. We're not talking about the sudden, premature death of the two icons of the modern IT world. Instead, what we are seeing is a slow, but certain, slide into irrelevance. Just as the stone ax gave way to one made of bronze, the Windows-powered PC must now give way to better, more customized, more refined tools.

Topics: Microsoft, Android, Hardware, iOS, Smartphones, Tablets, Windows

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169 comments
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  • So...

    ... Does this mean every other OS is also becoming irrelevant?
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Yes!

      This is the real story. The platform is dying. The Cloud is ascending.
      x I'm tc
      • So your future...

        Is Chrome OS, just like Adrian's.
        widow maker
        • I feel sorry

          For anyone who uses ChromeOS.

          Actually, wait, I don't.
          The one and only, Cylon Centurion
          • Chrome, really?

            I already have a Chrome OS...

            It's on my Win7 PC, and is called the Chrome browser. In addition, I have a full blown productive desktop.

            Chrome is fantastic IMO (the browser). The OS however is not worth the price of the hardware it sits on. Why pay $250 for a Chromebook, when for $150 more you can get better hardware, a full blown OS, AND have Chrome.
            louishelps
        • It means that Windows is a Neanderthal of IT

          This is the evolution of IT. Modern human is wiping out The Neanderthal...
          MacBroderick
          • It is Relative

            Compared to all the other animals, even primates at that time the Neanderthals were a major jump in evolution and were really quite advanced. I suspect in the long term history of computers Windows will not even be advanced as a Neanderthal.

            You are right, evolution is inevitable but the genes contained in Windows will never die.
            MichaelInMA
        • Actually...

          I can do almost anything on my Chromebook. I have a Samsung Series 5 (1.8Ghz Atom, 2GB of RAM, and a 16GB SSD) and the only things I cannot do on it are print directly from it, and edit videos and pictures, but that might change with the pixel.
          Richard Estes
          • no

            Or play a mmo game that requites a 32gb install. Or many games for that matter.

            My 249 black friday toshiba can do that, and its years old (4).

            Chrome os is a big tablet with a keyboard not much else im afraid. In fact I would argue that a samsung galaxy 4 is of more use than chrome book. But that is just me.
            elitewolverine
      • The Cloud is ascending

        and all your data descending into the abyss of the NSA and their ilk in other countries. Hopefully the data on my own local hard drives is still a little harder for them to access.
        arminw
        • and yours

          the problem is that your data is probably going to the NSA as well.. Windows is the binary non open OS of a twice convicted monopolist. They'd be very keen to keep the government happy and off their backs. Handing your data to the NSA would be the least they'd do IMHO.
          frankieh
    • No, only the over complicated ones

      OSX, iOS and (to a lesser extent) Android will do just fine.
      Englishmole
      • What?

        You say only the overly complicated ones, yet list OSX as doing just fine. So, why will Windows fail, yet OSX won't? The two are just as complex.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
        • To the average customer, OSX just works.

          Printers, scanners, networks just work. Set up just works. The performance doesn't deteriorate. You don't get loads of crapware. No malware or virus worries (never had one in 24 years of unprotected use).
          These are all complications, even to experienced users. To the bulk of everyday users, it's way too overcomplicated.
          Englishmole
          • In all fairness, the crapware is an OEM thing

            I_don't_find_Windows_7_really_has_any_problems_"just_working."
            It_can_detect_what_most_hardware_is,_and_find_a_driver_for_it.
            The_only_time_I_find_it_an_issue_is_mapping_a_64_bit
            workstation_to_a_32_bit_workstation's_printer....
            edge_use_cases_like_that.

            For_every_day_hooking_up_a_scanner,_camera,_etc,
            Windows_can_do_that_without_any_great_skill
            required_by_the_end_user.
            Most_PC's_problems_do_relate_to_all_the
            crapware_and_time_bombed_virus_protection
            scarewares_they_ship.
            Mac_PC_FenceSitter
          • ha ha ha ha .....

            please, serious comments only. I hook up printers, etc to my Win 8 machines and guess what, they just work. The days of DOS and early windows are long gone. As a matter of fact I get frustrated with the user friendly systems that are being created. It's harder to customize a home network.
            Romas27
          • I'm sorry, but...

            ...OS X doesn't "just work." It "just works" if you don't do anything beyond basic things or plug in hardware that the OS doesn't already have drivers for. When I have to hold "option" to tell Apple Mail's "Continue" button to let me set up the account manually, rather than check a box or click a button that makes that decision, that's where I draw the line. I should NEVER have to pull keyboard trickery to do that; it should be a button or option, period. Similarly, I have had many Macs choke on a new printer or a new wireless router.

            Bottom line: Macs are computers, and computers that "just work" only do so under limited circumstances. I wonder if Apple fans are more afraid of the idea that Mac OS X really isn't less messed up than Windows, and is prone to variations of the same problems.
            cryptikonline
          • "To the average customer, OSX just works."

            To the average customer of Apple, OSX just works.
            Bubba Trace
          • OS X "just works"? Are you kidding?

            The only reason why OSX gives the illusion that it "just works" because it only works with a very restricted subset of hardware out there.

            Most of the OEM hardware available at discount prices don't even bother to put in an OSX driver. Maybe, it "just works" because you have to pay premium prices for an item in this restricted subset of hardware.
            CyberGuerilla
        • Re: What?

          These are all UNIX. Surprise? ;-)

          Windows is way more spaghetti than OS X.
          danbi