After a couple of years of leaks, and a few carefully selected releases of information, we’ll finally see the big reveal of Microsoft’s Windows 8 at the BUILD conference this coming week. Make no mistake that Windows 8 is the most important release of Windows since 1990′s Windows 3.0, and Microsoft’s future as a platform company is dependent on it being a run-away success. Let’s do a little trip back in time to explore some eery parallels and then speculate on what we’ll see (or rather, what we have to see) at BUILD.
We spent the 1990s and 2000s living in a world dominated by computers with a Graphical User Interface (GUI) based on WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, and a Pointing device). This style of user interaction was pioneered in the 1960s at SRI and 1970s at Xerox PARC. Many companies then started working on commercialization though it was Apple that really brought this work to public attention with the Lisa and then to commercial success with the Macintosh computers. Microsoft entered the market for GUI-based UI around the same time as Apple, however it did so with an add-on shell to MS-DOS rather than with a complete GUI environment. Throughout the Windows 1/2 era we had a situation much as exists today. Microsoft had a GUI offering, but it was mostly used as a launcher for MS-DOS apps and was a poor representation of the GUI paradigm. Apple, with the Macintosh, had an excellent representative of the GUI paradigm and one that excited end users. As 1990 approached Microsoft was in danger of being relegated to a legacy business around MS-DOS while Apple was poised to become the dominant provider of PCs for both applications (e.g., desktop publishing) that worked best in a GUI paradigm and for the vast majority of people who still didn’t own a PC. Then came Windows 3.0.
With Windows 3.x (so 3.0/3.1/3.11) Microsoft made the leap to a full and competitive GUI OS and changed the game. Now it could bring all the benefits of its business model, such as a wealth of OEMs, retail and other distribution channels, and large application portfolio, into a GUI-centric world. Microsoft Windows soon eclipsed Macintosh (in perhaps every dimension except elegance) and went on to become the dominating operating system of the 1990s and 2000s.
The GUI paradigm served users very well for about 20 years because the computer form factor remained little changed in that time. Computers consisted of a system unit, a monitor, a keyboard, and a pointing device. This evolved from separate components into integrated systems, particularly in the form of the Notebook computer. But the essence didn’t change. Meanwhile various attempts to introduce new form factors were met with limited success. Various attempts at Tablet form factors, for example, went nowhere.
Development of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), which would evolve into today’s smartphones, began in the late 1980s. Once again Apple was a leader, but this time their Newton OS failed. Others succeeded, but in limited form. Finally Apple re-entered this market in 2007 with the iPhone and its IOS operating system. IOS itself was derived from the Macintosh OS but introduced a new finger-friendly Natural User Interface paradigm UI. Naturally Apple wasn’t the only company working on NUI, but once again they were the first to bring it to full fruition in a commercially successful product. Once again they enjoyed great success, but are in the process of being eclipsed in market share by Google’s Android. Microsoft is trying to play catchup, but it is unclear how much of a chance they have. This battle may not follow exactly the path of the earlier battle in PCs, but it is eerily similar so far. Even take Apple’s use of patents to try to stop Android. You may recall that Apple used the courts in an, ultimately futile, attempt to stop Microsoft Windows. But this posting isn’t about mobile phones, it is about the future of Microsoft Windows. So let’s move on.
With a clear hit in the NUI OS space in IOS, Apple moved on to introduce the iPad in 2010. At its introduction, and in some cases even a year later, analysts saw the iPad as a niche offering. What happened instead was the iPad caught on as a primary computing device that has started to encroach on the traditional Notebook computer. Many people, particularly when not on business trips, leave the Notebook at home and take just their iPad. This is a somewhat nuanced discussion in that for any given scenario one or the other form factor (Tablet or Notebook PC) one is actually better than the other. You can read a newspaper or book, create a spreadsheet, watch a movie, make airline reservations, layout a brochure, etc. on either. But the iPad is a much better experience for consumption-oriented activities like reading or watching while the Notebook is a better experience for creation-oriented activities like spreadsheets, brochures, editing photographs, etc. Something like making an airline reservation splits the difference, with someone who does lots of reservations finding a Notebook somewhat more productive (e.g., fewer required screen transitions and easier data entry) while someone who infrequently performs this activity may be perfectly happy doing it on an iPad. Most importantly, the number of people who are heavy Consumers on content far outweigh the number of people who are heavy creators of content. That gives the long-term edge in computing devices to those that are best at Consumption, placing the dominance of traditional Notebook (and even desktop) PCs in jeopardy.
Just as with the original Macintosh Apple has redefined the tablet category and staked out a strong lead in the NUI-based computing world. While to date this has primarily been based on the iPad’s superiority for content consumption, the truth is that people are working hard to improve its usefulness in content creation. For example, the addition of a Bluetooth keyboard greatly improves the users ability to create Spreadsheets, documents, etc. Capacitive Pens allow for higher resolution drawing than you can do with your finger. And how long until Apple creates a docking station that effectively turns your iPad into a full-blown analogy to a Macintosh PC? I imagine we’ll see that (and the demise of the traditional Mac line) within this decade.
Microsoft has introduced many NUI elements into Windows over the years, but the basic usage paradigm remains GUI. So, as in 1990, Microsoft is faced with either pulling off a full transition to the new NUI world or being relegated to a legacy supplier while Apple runs away with the next generation of computing. Microsoft has lucked out in one respect; unlike in the mobile phone space Android has failed to gain traction in the tablet space. And Apple’s legal assault on Android (where, for example, they have been able to block sales of some Android tablets in some jurisdictions) promises to keep the opportunity open long enough for Microsoft to step in with the only real IOS alternative. And so this comes down to a classic repeat of the Windows 3.0/3.1/3.11 vs Macintosh battle of the early 1990s. If Microsoft succeeds we’ll be looking back a decade from now at a world in which it is still the dominant supplier of end-user computing devices. If it fails, a decade from now we’ll be lumping Windows in with MVS and VMS as living historical artifacts that matter only to a few people.
Since this blog entry has gotten so long I’m going to split the discussion of what we should expect to see next week into a separate entry. See you on the other side.