Every time I write something about Microsoft’s strategy, and suggest the classic desktop PC (and the desktop, indeed the WIMP model itself,) is becoming a niche offering, I get inundated with comments challenging my position. Now this just in from Gartner, unless Microsoft gains traction in tablets and smartphones in the next four years they will become irrelevant. Microsoft itself realized this years ago which is why they’ve stuck with banging their head on the wall to make Windows Phone succeed and started the re-invention of the PC with Windows 8. From a sheer numbers perspective, phones and tablets dwarf PCs and moreover are displacing PC usage in increasing numbers of areas.
The traditional PC market is in long-term irreversible decline. That doesn’t mean it goes away, mainframes are still with us for example, or if it does (as happened with minicomputers) that it goes away in the next decade. But sales volumes will rapidly shift to smartphones, tablets, and tablet-inspired devices. Microsoft can cannibalize its own traditional business or watch Apple and the Android cartel do it to them. Microsoft’s approach is to try to redefine the PC to encompass the so-called post-PC world. That’s a tough thing to do, and one can question details of the route that Microsoft takes, but they have no choice. Despite what many Windows 8-haters believe.
One recent comment on this blog challenged Microsoft’s move away from the traditional desktop with the assertion that Apple remains committed to that market with OS X. Let’s be clear here, despite Apple’s relative (to previous decades) success with OS X the Mac is a pimple on the overall PC market. The much maligned Windows 8 has already passed any version of OS X in market share and will pass the combined market share of all versions of OS X by the end of this year. If you want to hold OS X up as proof of the vitality of the traditional PC market you may be demonstrating the opposite. That the much-loved OS X hasn’t been able to exceed single digit market share range despite Microsoft’s travails with anti-trust restrictions on its business practices, the Vista debacle, and a general malaise towards the company suggests that the desktop is a niche. Few want to pay the costs of moving to OS X because they don’t see that as a meaningful change. Their personal and corporate attention is on the much more impactful paradigm shift that is under way.
One could also challenge the assertion that Apple is investing in OS X. It’s more like a cash-cow. Years ago they reportedly cut the size of the OS X team and moved the resources to IOS. Even in the last couple of days there have been reports of resources being taken off of OS X to help with the development of IOS 7. Apple continues to invest enough in OS X, and refreshes of the Mac product line, to keep it generating healthy profits. But the full weight of the company is behind IOS and the non-desktop world not OS X and the desktop. I wonder if critics would have been happier had Microsoft put a skeleton crew on producing Windows 7.1, 7.2, etc. while the bulk of its resource went into producing a Windows-based “Tablet OS 8″.
Microsoft has been in the toilet for over a decade now yet neither OS X nor the variety of attempts at Desktop Linux have made a dent in its desktop dominance. On the other hand, IOS and Android are kicking the c*** out of Microsoft. Apple and Google have taken advantage of a paradigm shift away from WIMP as a usage model and the “desktop” as the place most people do computing. And now that is spreading from being secondary devices (or consumer toys as some try to position them) that reduce Minutes per Day (MpD) usage of PCs (and lengthening the PC replacement cycle) to replacing traditional PCs outright. Retail is a very visible example of this, where iPads are replacing in-store PCs and PC-based cash registers as the primary device used by store employees.
Microsoft may fail to make the transition and become irrelevant just as Gartner asserts. I think the Windows team made some rookie mistakes in putting out Windows 8. Those are things they can recover from, although the delay in getting to a place where the reinvention of Windows garners more praise than hate makes their cause significantly more difficult. On the positive side it looks like both Windows Phone and Windows are shifting some of their attention back to the Enterprise market where their traditional strength lies. That’s probably a strategy they should have pursued from the beginning, but fear of “keep doing what you’ve done and you’ll keep getting what you got” caused the pendulum to swing too far to the Consumer. Again, not technically irrecoverable but certainly a huge speed bump in achieving business success.
Microsoft has a long and difficult road ahead of it and they will make mistakes along the way. But they really have no choice in whether or not to attempt the journey. The traditional PC is the new mainframe. And even for the mighty IBM, mainframes are just a niche business as this point. When it comes to computing the phrase “change or die” has never been more appropriate.