On the eve of CES 2019, the prospects for a post-Windows world

One day you’re in, declares Heidi Klum’s prophecy, and the next day you’re out. Microsoft Windows may matter less to the modern world today. That’s fine, because there are other issues deserving our attention.
Written by Scott Fulton III, Contributor

Twelve years ago at around this time, I managed a news team that was covering CES 2007.  Through the latter part of December, we had led up to our coverage with wall-to-wall analysis — my equivalent of the non-stop coverage cable news would devote to an upcoming election.  Our analyst team, whom I called the "Grown-ups' Table," expected Microsoft to lead its keynote address with its predictions for consumer technology, though they intimated that Windows would not be a factor in 2007.  The PC was becoming commoditized, they told us (correctly), and no one throws a party to celebrate a commodity.

"There could be several possible factors contributing to a downplay of Microsoft this year," I wrote.  "a) Microsoft's possibly diminishing influence in the industry; b) the reduced pertinence of desktop computers (not so much laptop) on the electronics industry at large; c) the Vista delay from last year, which may have killed most of the buzz; d) everyday consumers not really finding operating systems all that interesting anymore."

This is the story of how long it takes for a tech journalist to verify a hunch.

The commodity

The name of the restaurant was Clancy's Grill in Anaheim, California, and although Yelp says the location has closed, I'd hope that have been fake news.  Eight years ago, I was enjoying a particularly superb hamburger there, when the folks seated at the bar with me tried, very sweetly and politely, to feign interest in what I did for a living.  I was on assignment to cover a Microsoft conference a few blocks away, devoted to the upcoming Windows 8.

Also: Microsoft wish list: How to keep customers happy and make money in 2019

"Windows?" asked one happy iPhone owner with a note of astonishment, as though recalling a long-forgotten brand like Montgomery Ward, Studebaker, or Mutual Radio. "That's still around, isn't it?"

Microsoft's first glimpse of the future: the 2011 private beta of Windows 8. (Image: Scott Fulton)

Try explaining to a fellow who had just relinquished his dusty, under-utilized home office PC to his kids just so they could play Minecraft, why Windows is important enough to be covered as news on a regular basis. I had spent a great deal of my younger life explaining to people why a concept few had ever heard of, was actually relevant. Nothing more poignantly signaled how quickly that period had ended than finding myself explaining why a concept most everyone now had heard of, was still relevant.

Legacy -- the euphemism attached to anything dull that refuses to die out -- is the toughest sell to make. Back when we produced journalism for magazines, we focused on individual brands: Apple II, Commodore 64, Macintosh, Atari ST, Amiga. When some of those brands expired, legacy could only keep us afloat for so long before we stopped publishing their magazines and shifted our focus elsewhere.

Also: Microsoft officially announces 'Windows Sandbox' for running applications in isolation

The excuse I gave this fellow at Clancy's for Windows' continued relevance (over one of the finest pub hamburgers I'd ever eaten) was that it remained the principal platform for everyday productivity. I could easily render that same excuse today. But how does something that a) doesn't change; b) changes gradually, but not in any pertinent or historically relevant manner; or c) changes suddenly and erratically in a way that its users soundly reject, as Windows 8 did, continue to be newsworthy?  News, as three of its own letters prominently assert, is about the new.

What Windows, where?

Already by 2011, there were everyday users of highly sophisticated devices who had either been weaned from Windows, or had never been a passenger on the Windows juggernaut to begin with. My colleagues, my wife, and I had actively participated in the building of an industry around news and education about the software and devices that cohabited the tremendous Windows ecosystem. Microsoft's success up to that point had largely been established on its ability to leverage Windows' greatly entrenched position to extend new and bigger services that were either dependent on Windows, or cleverly engineered to appear dependent on it.

Part of the Windows Phone 10 demonstration in Redmond in 2014. (Image: Scott Fulton)

But Microsoft never produced a desirable mobile device operating system, or a desirable mobile device whose operating system happened to be Windows. By the time the company was ready at last to build a pontoon bridge of sorts between the PC and the smartphone, its consumer base had already moved on, and its business base had already invested in alternatives.

Windows is by no means defunct. Indeed, data analytics firm Net Applications is now estimating that usage share of Windows 10 has at last exceeded that of Windows 7. Yet it's hard to make the case for this metric's relevance in modern society. It's like checking the Nielsen ratings for two '90s rerun sitcoms on an obscure cult classic channel. We're observing the vestigial remains of a historical remnant, holding onto the present by the sheer force of its own deadweight, not unlike the telephone directory or the US electoral college. No matter how often it gets updated, or how long its update backlog may grow, some small part of Windows' code is always searching for a modem, a math co-processor, or some CMOS chip last produced when "Three's Company" was still a thing.

Cold case

No technology can sustain itself as a topic of everyday discussion unless it maintains a high qualitative level of innovation -- high enough to yield positive benefits for people's lives and work. The moment it ceases to be consistently innovative, however, even its most substantive innovations fail to make a dent in the public discourse.

Also: Windows 10 is now most popular PC OS as Windows 7 wanes

Take, for example, refrigeration. There's presently a tremendous upheaval under way in the US with the phasing out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC) by 2020. It's a platform shift, like the 2009 transition of VHF and UHF television to HDTV, and it's fundamental to the way we live and the air we breathe. But there are no daily blogs devoted to it. When refrigeration ceased to be exciting, not even a revolution could resuscitate it.

The very first public glimpse of Windows 8, from Build 2011. (Image: Scott Fulton)

Windows 8 was an active effort by Microsoft to rejuvenate the brand without risking a complete rewrite of the platform, which may have rendered too many older PCs non-functional. It was a new and almost completely different veneer pasted over the old system, with so little functional connection between the two layers that users felt they were working in two separate worlds. No one wants two separate worlds.

Must read

Part of the Windows Phone 10 demonstration in Redmond in 2014. (Image: Scott Fulton)

Ever since then, Windows 10 has scrambled to undo the damage. Four years ago, at the Windows 10 premiere event in Redmond, there was visible evidence that this last effort would fail. The presentation hall was full of reporters snapping pictures of Windows Phone features, many of which would never be published (at least until now). Yet outside, guarding the hallway, were young folks who were too interested in Tumblr or Instagram or whatever was happening on their iPhones and Galaxys even to care to peek in. Watching them ignore what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had personally declared to be the future of all technology told me everything I needed to know.

The shape of things to come

Last October, when Microsoft released an update to Windows 10 that, among other tragedies, irrevocably deleted users' Documents folders on drive C:, my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott followed the entire story with his trademark zeal, as pertinent now as ever. Had this debacle occurred a decade ago, without any doubt in my mind, I would have had the publication I managed at that time sound the alert klaxons of doom and man its battle stations for the duration. "The Build 1809 Crisis: PCs Held Hostage, Day 81," and so on.

Also: Windows is coming to your Chromebook

Within the bubble that is the Windows universe, the update debacle has been a legitimate news story. But that bubble has, to borrow a phrase, been minimized.

Microsoft then-president Steven Sinofsky explaining the Windows 8 "experience" in 2011. (Image: Scott Fulton)

The lesson here is not just for Microsoft but everyone else. All the other tech platforms in our purview -- Apple iOS and Android in our hands and on our wrists; Linux, vSphere, and Kubernetes in our data centers; AWS, Azure, and GCP in the public cloud; Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in our conversation streams; and perhaps most prominently of all, the World-Wide Web itself -- are just as susceptible to minimization as Windows, MS-DOS, CP/M, and PL/I. When platforms such as these become successful, they become entrenched in our lives. For a while, their evolution is masterfully maintained by their owners -- or, in the case of open source, their contributors -- at a gradual pace that maximizes everyone's return on investment for the longest possible period.

Inevitably, these platforms' disappearance from our news feeds barely merits a hashtag or a sad-face emoji. Yet they never fully disappear from our lives, which leaves us to wonder how much time we should continue devoting to things that were once important.

Also: Does anyone really care about those monthly 'market share' numbers?

Today, we lead our news columns, white papers, TV tech shows, and podcasts with the oft-repeated maxim that technology is ever-changing. Yet the most cursory glance at the electrical, cable TV, and phone lines strung over our neighborhoods betrays how indisputably false this is. All the industries upon which our global economy depends, require stability and integrity. Even the perception of upheaval can be poison for global markets. For some financial institutions, even Windows is novel. Much of the world's transactions continue to run on 1960s and 1970s mainframe technology, which is so critical to their continuity that IBM has been unable to discontinue its production even when it earnestly tries.

Old platforms never die. But to break from Gen. MacArthur, they do get buried.

The road(s) ahead

In recent years, platforms including Windows have been marketed to us as being "about the experience."  If the true purpose of technology were to generate an experience, then humankind would have stopped with the firecracker. The true story of technology is about what human beings can do with it, or alternately, what they cannot do with it yet.

  • The public cloud has already become the principal conveyor of functionality for the world's computing devices. Yet the public's understanding of cloud systems -- not just how they function, but who builds and manages them -- is nowhere near the level of understanding people had about Windows, or MS-DOS, or the Apple II, at the same stages of their histories. It's not so much that we're clueless, but that we haven't put all the clues together yet.
  • The social media sphere is in a rapid state of decay. Indeed, there is a growing public antipathy for the mechanisms, be they conspiratorial or automated, with which public discussion systems have become artificial inducements for discord, polarization, and even hatred. Typically, no consumer product can survive this level of negative sentiment, except in situations where it has become a true commodity, and there can be no clear alternatives or successors.
  • The world's communications networks are in flux. The current generations of wireless systems became unsustainable far too soon. Their successors, collectively dubbed "5G," are being marketed as enhancements, though they are actually a colossal overhaul of every facet of communications infrastructure. To generate enough revenue for this overhaul to be successful, many believe it must also encompass the existing cloud computing infrastructure, replacing public cloud availability zones with mini- or micro-data centers that are closer to their customers. In other words, the argument goes, 5G needs to change everything if it can be expected to change anything.
  • Our planetary ecosystem faces an existential crisis, the nature of which dwarfs the importance of all operating system updates combined. The solution to this crisis is very likely technological, and will require us as a people to attain a much greater comprehension of physics, geology, meteorology, biology, and ecology than we have today. And it will demand that our technology, including the systems that power it, have evolved to an extent thus far unforeseen.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Microsoft Windows helped make individuals smarter, more capable, and more self-confident about their ability to handle the rapidly increasing influx of information. As we approach the end of this decade, we can clearly see Windows has done about all it could. Its name, along with that of Clancy's and Sears and Pontiac, has already become a memorial unto itself. The solution to building the world ahead of us, if there is to be such a world, may never again lie with a single platform, or with any one methodology or mindset or skill. Certainly, it will never lie with any one brand name or manufacturer.

Also: What will you get with a Microsoft 365 consumer subscription?

But that is what technology was always supposed to be, wasn't it? Not the solution itself, but the means of attaining it. Not an experience, but the system by which we improve the experiences we have. Not a delivery channel, but an engine of progress. Viewed in that light, perhaps Windows may fade away without leaving us behind.

A brief history of Microsoft's Surface: Missteps and successes

Previous and related coverage:

How to install, reinstall, upgrade and activate Windows 10

Here's everything you need to know before you repair, reinstall, or upgrade Windows 10, including details about activation and product keys.

After Windows 10 upgrade, do these seven things immediately

You've just upgraded to the most recent version of Windows 10. Before you get back to work, use this checklist to ensure that your privacy and security settings are correct and that you've cut annoyances to a bare minimum.

How to upgrade from Windows 10 Home to Pro for free

You've got a new PC running Windows 10 Home. You want to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro. Here's how to get that upgrade for free. All you need is a Pro/Ultimate product key from an older version of Windows.

Related stories:

More CES 2019 coverage:

Editorial standards