What Windows Needs

Finally, at long last, Microsoft is ditching their technologically challenged CEO Steve Ballmer. We all know why Steve got the job. He was there to continue the will of Bill, as in Gates, after the company’s founder retired. Gates is still chairman of Microsoft, but he’s focused more on his humanitarian efforts these days. The problem is that Ballmer is no Bill Gates. He’s definitely not Steve Jobs or Eric Schmidt of Google. He isn’t even Oracle’s Larry Ellison. He’s a Jack Welch wannabe who introduced corporate cannibalism into Microsoft’s management strategy and tolerated the tone-deaf delusions of Windows chief Steven Sinofsky long after it became apparent Sinofsky had no clue what it was users wanted.

All that is neither here nor there. By the fall of 2014, there will be a new person at the helm of Microsoft, and it remains to be seen if anyone can reinvent the company that broke into Xerox’s house with Apple and stole the TV known as the graphical user interface. (That’s based on a hilarious response from Gates when Steve Jobs complained that the GUI was Apple’s idea. Jobs later said he thought that was pretty funny, too.)

The problem is Microsoft’s flagship product, Windows. When Windows 7 came out, it was as close to perfect as Microsoft was ever going to get: Intuitive, familiar, stable, and very user friendly. If Windows 7 became a pain to load on your PC, it almost always could be blamed on the manufacturer. I know because what used to be Compaq builds HP’s computers these days, and almost always, I have to download drivers and strip crapware off of HP machines. It hearkens back to the days when Compaq used to put their own interface over Windows. Dude, I’m sticking with Dell. (My current and previous employer swear by them.)

Then came Windows 8, inexplicably designed with the idea that people wanted their tablets, phones, and PC’s to all look alike. Wrong. OS X looks nothing like iOS. The Chome OS touted by Google looks nothing like Android (though the two will eventually share the same kernel). Why? You’re phone is not a PC, and your laptop is not a tablet. Windows 8 is a ham-fisted, poorly thought-out attempt by Microsoft to outsmart Google and Apple.

The idea of using Windows to run tablets and phones is not a bad idea. I’ve heard people find the “Metro” interface looks fine on the Surface and on Windows phones. It looks horrible and is confusing on laptops and PC’s. Hence, Windows 8.1 now has an option to default to the desktop.

So what does Windows need to survive the next decade?

  • Device-sensitive interface: No one wants Metro (I know. They had to drop the name. Too bad. That’s what everyone calls it now) on their desktop, Xbox, or laptop. No one wants a Start button on their phone or their tablet. Windows already has built-in functionality to know what device it’s running on. It’s maybe a couple dozen lines of C++ code to figure out which interface to use based on that.
  • Integrate Office into Windows. Seriously, no one wants Office 365, and those of us supporting Office in business environments find Office 2013 next to useless, particularly in small companies that can’t afford to upgrade their email server every time Microsoft wants to wring a few more pennies out of its user base. Besides, there’s really nothing more you can do to Office to make it better. It’s ubiquitous, and free open-source alternatives are starting to catch up. Not only that, Corel still makes Word Perfect, fully compatible and cheaper. Come to think of it, Corel has been making Adobe it’s bitch of about a decade now by creating cheaper and robust alternatives to Adobe’s product line. If they smell blood in Redmond, it wouldn’t be hard to convince a few penny-pinching IT departments to switch. If Office is part of Windows at no extra charge, you pretty much own that customer base.
  • Lose the app store. It’s my least favorite aspect of mobile device computing. I don’t like Google Play, and I don’t like having to go to Apple to get apps.
  • Embrace open source. Look, we all use Windows. OK? Even some Mac Heads own a cheap Windows box as a backup. Making Windows open source let’s you charge for the OS , but you get the add-ons and development for free. If IBM had figured this out about 10 years sooner, it’d be an OS/2 vs. OS X world. And OS/2 in its time was a much better operating system. Now it’s like the Amiga, a curiosity for extreme geeks.
  • Ditch the current business model. Look, the gravy train is going to end. If you don’t get off soon, it’ll end badly, leaving Microsoft more like the BUNCH companies that competed with IBM in the mainframe days than, say, Ford Motor, still one of the largest companies in the world despite the decline and near collapse of the American auto industry.
  • Hire someone design-minded to be in charge. Apple knows this. They have Johnny Ives, and even their miscues are better than most other companies’ hits. A design-minded executive will keep Windows’ (and Office’s) interface consistent across versions and make the OS more intuitive. Yes, you have some brilliant people working for you in Redmond, but they’re clueless as to whom they’re selling to. At some point, the door will be forever closed to any phone or tablet not running iOS or Android, and eventually, Ubuntu will make an interface so user-friendly that people will wonder why they even pay for an operating system on the bigger boxes.And then Microsoft will be the next Studebaker. How ’bout them 2014 Larks? Oh, wait. They ceased production in 1966.
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