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Microsoft’s March of Folly (*)

3 June 2012 | Technology

It is hard to overestimate the importance of Windows in making Microsoft the dominant player it is today. Bill Gates famously lost his temper in a historic outburst when his underlings at Microsoft were losing perspective of how critical the desktop, with Windows and Office, was for the organisation's foothold in the market and, critically, its stream of revenues: "Hasn't anybody here ever heard of Windows? Windows is what this company is about!"

But with Bill Gates gone from the helm, it seems Microsoft has stubbornly settled on a course that will lead to disaster. The name of the disaster is Windows 8. The cause for it? The Apple iPad. Ever since the iPad turned what had been an inconsequential niche in the market into something with mass appeal, Microsoft has been vexed by its success. Maybe their anger was further heightened by the fact that in the early noughties Microsoft pushed the concept of a tablet well before Apple adopted it, but had failed in driving mass acceptance (both because the hardware was not yet up to it - they were heavy, expensive and clunky precursors to modern tablets - and the OS had not been properly extended to offer a suitable touch-based interface).

So, what is the problem? In one word: Metro. Metro is the name for the touch based shell first seen on Microsoft's smartphone platform Windows Phone 7. It's not at all a bad shell for those environments, and indeed for tablets (even if I personally prefer my Android 4 tablet). Now, if Windows 8 would have allowed for a seamless marriage between the traditional desktop (Aero) and the new Metro interface, that would have been a sensible approach and a shrewd business move to extend its foothold into new markets.

But that is not what Microsoft is doing. With Windows 8, and apparently under the unhappy leadership of Jensen Harris who previously ruined the established Office menu interface by replacing it (not complementing, you see) by the Ribbon, it is effectively in danger of forfeiting the hard fought gains and dominance over the desktop it has built up over the past 20 years. Over this period, the desktop shell, so critically important to usability and productivity, especially in the work place, has evolved and been fine-tuned by iterative generations. It was quite judicious of Microsoft to stress the many improvements Windows 7 offered in this respect when that OS was launched and the advertisements at the time smartly focused on start menu and task bar improvements, jump lists and other novelties that further enhanced the user experience. These were evolutionary improvements, not a revolutionary break with the past.

Not only is Metro in Windows 8 not a suitable replacement for the Aero desktop for personal computers (most of whom are mouse and keyboard operated rather than by touch, and will remain so for the foreseeable future), Microsoft has, incomprehensibly and entirely unnecessarily, dismembered key parts of the Aero interface in a seemingly mad act of self-mutilation. This is not a rational response to the growing tablet market, but a response that I can only describe as madness.

Of course the tablet market is growing, and it is right, even high time, that companies like Microsoft formulate a suitable response and provide competitive offerings. But not only are tablets largely complimentary to desktop and laptop PCs rather than outright replacements (they are nice for consumption of certain content in certain circumstances, but pretty poor for productive work, particularly so in terms of the work environment). But it's important not to lose perspective here: there are an estimated 1.1 billion personal computers in use today, compared to estimated sales of (only) about 66 million tablets in 2011.

And yet more important is that in terms of revenue, Windows and Office by far outstrip any other software offering in the market. Tablets simply do not offer any prospect of a remotely comparable business case (and many free or cheap apps do equal profitable business either).

The very predictable outcome of the Windows 8 folly Microsoft has embarked upon is that most businesses and consumers will simply continue to use Windows 7 for the over a billion personal computers and laptops out there, just as Vista was largely shunned in preference over XP. At the same time, the idea that this sacrifice will produce Microsoft dominance in the tablet and smartphone markets is deluded. Even if Windows 8 would wipe out iOS and, frankly more important, Android - a pipe dream entirely - it would make no sense commercially or otherwise to do so by damaging the desktop cash cow. It is fortunate for Microsoft that there is no immediate credible alternative to Windows on the desktop, and once rationality prevails Windows 9 hopefully will bring back sanity. In the meantime, however, lots of money is wasted and much goodwill built up by Windows 7 will be lost.

It's somewhat of a posthumous triumph for Steve Jobs' marketing genius (his technology has never been very impressive, but certainly the marketing of Apple products has outshone the competition) that Microsoft is set on a course of deep self-harm as a result of its obsession with the iPad, while completely overlooking its own hugely superior grip on the desktop market in both the home and the enterprise, something that Bill Gates understood extremely well. While it's trying to build a bigger garden shed than the neighbour, Microsoft is in danger of burning down the massive mansion it has constructed over the years. Folly indeed.

(*) The title of this entry is borrowed from a 1984 book by Barbara Tuchman, "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam", in which the author describes four major episodes of human folly, where irrationality leads to predictable disaster.