Pay attention, Microsoft

Microsoft should concentrate on doing one thing well

Psychologists claim the popular concept of multi-tasking as we know it is a myth. Your brain can only really focus on one task at any one time. Multitasking is really just rapid attention-switching and by doing multiple things concurrently, you're actually doing lots of things with less attention than you would do one. Too much of that, and you've got attention deficit disorder — nothing gets done properly.

Microsoft is a company increasingly in love with multitasking. At one time it was relatively easy to define what Microsoft was about: the operating system known as Windows and the application suite called Office. Those markets are saturated now, but the company needs to grow — so it multitasks across business software, games, Xboxes, media centres, browsers, Hotmail, and a myriad other developments.

This constant drive into new markets has impacted the operating system. Microsoft attempts to fight the commodification of the OS by increasing complexity and closing down competition, at a time when people want simplicity, reliability and choice. They want an operating system that works, and does exactly what it is supposed to — be an efficient and secure platform for applications. Nothing more.

This argument for stability over features was highlighted this week in the form of self-proclaimed "people's attorney general" Andy Martin. The executive director of The Committee to Fight Microsoft (CTFM) has launched a campaign to stop Vista until Microsoft guarantees that it's free of "bad code". Martin's campaign is misguided and unrealistic — perfection in code is theoretically impossible to prove — but it does highlight Microsoft's reputation for doing too much too badly.

Microsoft should concentrate on building operating systems. Reliability, performance and choice would improve if Microsoft actually sold an operating system that was just that. The company's argument against this is that it should be allowed to expand its business and consumers do not want to be bothered with installing browsers and IM clients separately. Quite so, but this does not mean that the alternative is the company doing everything. It should concentrate on the core operating system and open up wholesale channels for others — even including Microsoft's other divisions — to bundle in what they think appropriate, from whoever they please.

Here, as so often, Microsoft has lessons to learn from open source, where flexibility and choice are part of the genetic inheritance of the movement — and heterogeny is no enemy of reliability. It's just a matter of paying attention to the one thing that really matters: the users.