The year Windows died at home and nobody cared

While Microsoft's desktop operating system continues to be a key fixture of enterprise computing environments, it faces extinction at home. And Redmond seems perfectly fine with that.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

In 2017, I argued that Microsoft's Windows operating system, as we have traditionally understood it, has an expiration date. And for the Redmond software giant to move forward, the "death" of Windows probably will happen sooner rather than later.

Read also: More Microsoft reorg moves shed light on cross-platform experience plans

I described various architectural changes to the operating system that were critical in order for it to modernize and to shed legacy components that were hampering its evolution, such as the Win32 subsystem that has been present since 1990 or so, as well as its affinity to the Intel x86 architecture and moving to low-power SoCs, such as Qualcomm's Snapdragon, which is based on an ARM architecture.

Systems that run on Windows and use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, such as HP's Envy X2 2-in-1, are already shipping.

These are changes that Microsoft is actively working on as part of a long-planned transition toward a more modernized way of software development, which allows it to target as many platforms as possible.

This includes mobile devices that run on Google's Android and Apple's iOS, as well as IoT appliances that scale all the way from tiny microcontroller-based smart light switches to smart appliances, video streaming devices, smart TVs, and video game consoles.

Microsoft is targeting everything, not just PCs

What Microsoft now recognizes as its target platforms for its software products and services is effectively everything, not just personal computers.

To quote its CEO, Satya Nadella:

"Digital technology, pervasively, is getting embedded in every place: Every thing, every person, every walk of life is being fundamentally shaped by digital technology -- it is happening in our homes, our work, our places of entertainment... It's amazing to think of a world as a computer. I think that's the right metaphor for us as we go forward."

None of this should come as a shock, as Microsoft has been doing quite a bit of organizational shuffling to de-emphasize its Windows teams and put much more emphasis in higher-growth areas such as the cloud and AI.

Read also: Microsoft to launch smaller, low-cost Surface devices

This is not to say Windows is unimportant to Microsoft and as an overall technology. It continues to be a very important fixture of not just desktop but also server-based computing in the enterprise.

Even with application modernization efforts that move away from APIs, such as Win32, and toward web services and standards, Windows remains very sticky in large companies due to many legacy desktop applications that will just not go away.

The continued importance of Windows as a server OS in enterprise data centers and in the public and private clouds for IaaS workloads means we will probably still be dealing with it for at least another 10 years, if not more, despite the adoption of application-centric technologies like containers, microservices, and SaaS.

But that is the enterprise and the public sector, which move much more slowly and have many dependencies that must be taken into consideration. Personal technology and the home is another matter altogether.

PC usefulness is reaching its endgame

In the home, the usefulness of the personal computer -- which includes Apple's Mac systems -- is reaching its endgame. There exists an entirely new category of computing users who do not even own personal computers.

While it is difficult to correlate, taking into consideration the declining sales and effectively flat growth of PCs along with the huge market saturation of the smartphone and their overall usage seems to indicate people not only do more on smartphones but may even be using them exclusively as their primary computing platform.

Read also: What is Microsoft's AndromedaOS?

And their numbers are significant.

They may have home broadband and Wi-Fi on their premises, but they primarily interact with mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, as well as IoT devices like Amazon's Echo, and video-streaming devices for consuming content like Netflix on larger-format screens such as smart TVs -- this is assuming they aren't consuming the balance of it on the go using mobile data connections.

If they do have a personal computer, it is more than likely a company-issued laptop, not a personally-owned asset.

Or perhaps it's an old PC or Mac that was purchased years ago and is now gathering dust in a corner. It's nearly impossible to get accurate numbers about the age of the installed base of PCs, but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people are hanging onto those old PCs longer and not replacing them every few years as they did at the height of the PC era.

And while K-12 and higher education students still very much use personal computers, increasingly they are now being outfitted with inexpensive Chromebooks -- stateless zero-configuration systems that use all web-based and cloud-based software and Android applications.

Microsoft is still succeeding

Is Microsoft being left out of this trend? No, quite the opposite.

How to run Windows 10 and Windows applications on your Mac

Microsoft is investing huge amounts of money into Azure datacenter buildout, and it's expanding its developer tendrils into Edge Computing and IoT. The company intends for its cloud APIs to touch everything that has a microprocessor and a network connection. And it is succeeding.

So, while a home user may not use the Windows version of Office 365, if they are tied into a modernized digital workplace, they will have workplace collaboration tools installed on their smartphones and tablets, such as Teams, which is becoming more important to the company, especially as it converges the client functionality for both its SharePoint and Skype for Business offerings.

Read also: Why open source is so important to Microsoft

Some of the very best mobile applications, such as Outlook and Office Lens, are completely free to download and use. And the consumer version of OneDrive is one of the best cloud storage and backup services on both the Android and iOS platforms, arguably even better than what Apple supplies as native service offerings on its own products.

Is Microsoft behind in the content consumption space?

One could argue that, with the exception of Xbox, Microsoft is behind Apple, Google, and Amazon in the content consumption space, as they have not only their own services offerings for consumers but also primary deployment device platforms for content-oriented apps like Netflix, Amazon Video, and Hulu.

Read also: Microsoft moves toward consolidating its many speech services

But while a consumer might not interact or transact with Microsoft directly when content is being consumed, Azure data centers host a great deal of content from third-party providers in the entertainment media space, including the large telecoms providing residential broadband, as well as those planning for high-speed fixed 5G networks and who will have their own view-on-demand capabilities.

Microsoft has not lost its importance

All indications are that Windows may very well be dead in the future of the consumer, at least at home and on their mobile devices when accessing resources for work and for play.

But Microsoft itself has not lost its importance. If anything, it is becoming much more important as more activities of the home-based and consumer end-user are shifted toward consuming content and services in the cloud.

Read also: Microsoft has a clean slate problem

Have you stopped using PCs and Windows at home and in your mobile lifestyle? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

In Memoriam: All the consumer products Microsoft has killed off

Previous and related coverage

Microsoft lays Windows Phone to rest

Windows Phone 8.1 is officially dead, as Microsoft turns off support for the three-year-old OS.

Windows is trying to escape the PC, again

Windows 10S and Windows on ARM see Microsoft looking beyond the standard PC again. Can it succeed this time?

Here's how you can still get a free Windows 10 upgrade

Microsoft's much-hyped free upgrade offer for Windows 10 ended

Editorial standards