More Potential Nightmares for Microsoft

April 1st, 2009

On the heels of having to post a $250,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the person or persons responsible for the Conficker worm, it’s beginning to look as if there are more major threats to the dominance of Windows in the personal computer universe.

Consider reports now that HP is seriously considering whether to adopt the open source Google Android platform, based on Linux, for its netbooks. Before I take this a step further, I realize that some of you might dispute my statement that a netbook is a personal computer. But I regard them as basically low-power version of a regular note-books. Indeed, not too many years ago, the typical 2009 netbook might have been regarded as a pretty powerful beast. I mean, it uses standard, if low-end, PC hardware and all, and can run any application that can function efficiently within its modest resource limits.

Today’s netbooks typically run either Linux or Windows XP. Windows Vista is just too resource hungry. Sure, Microsoft promises that they will provide a tamed version of Windows 7 for a netbook, but it’s really hard to take anything they say all that seriously until it really happens. If it does, that’s fine for Microsoft, assuming folks can accept its limitations, such as running, say, three apps at a time.

Now, I should put this all in perspective. As stated in a recent article over at Ars Technica, the Android operating system was not originally conceived for the PC world, but for smartphones. So it would probably require a fair amount of expense and development time to make it function in a different environment. On the other hand, perhaps HP is just sending up a trial balloon, perhaps firing a warning shot across the bow of Microsoft that they need to provide something workable for netbooks or other alternatives will be sought.

However, as is ably pointed out in that article, there are already Linux systems tailored for the netbook, and they are, when carefully configured, sufficiently user friendly to serve as serious competitors to Windows XP. That has to also weigh heavily on the minds of Microsoft’s executives as they ponder the potential of making Windows 7 reasonably functional on a netbook.

Another alternative, of course, would be to use Windows Mobile. That might, in turn, follow the concept of using operating systems for tailored for mobile platforms on netbooks. Indeed, a lot of knowledgeable folks believe that Apple’s entry into the netbook arena — should that product segment sustain itself for the long haul — would involve a grown-up iPhone, perhaps something in the tradition of the eMate 300, the Newton-based mobile device of the mid-1990s.

Apple, however, has demonstrated that they can take the basic OS X platform and deploy it far more extensively than Microsoft can with its core Windows products. So this sort of expansion of the iPhone line wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Take that Microsoft!

Meantime, it’s been reported that Firefox has now overtaken the most popular version of Internet Explorer, version 7, in the European market. Yes, Internet Explorer 8 is catching on to some degree, but whether it’ll slow the growth of Firefox is anyone’s guess. You see, Firefox came out of the starting gate with an obviously severe disadvantage, since Internet Explorer is part and parcel of the Windows operating system. Unless the PC vendor bundles Firefox on a new computer’s desktop, you have to go out and download a copy. Indeed, if PC users actually had an equal choice of different browsers, all preloaded or easily installed by clicking on desktop icons on a new machine, I wonder if Internet Explorer might have fared far worse.

I suppose the next huge test for Microsoft — and Apple for that matter — is the financials from the past quarter. Yes, there were reports of a fairly large decline in retail U.S.-based Mac sales in February. But sales for March haven’t been revealed yet, so it’s not clear how the new Mac desktop lineup might have helped, although there are unofficial indications that things did turn around.

I should also point out once again that Apple is a global company, and lower sales in one country may be compensated for by higher sales elsewhere. The point is that we really don’t know yet.

Meantime, just how did the overall PC market fare? Will Microsoft recover enough not to be forced to continue its first layoffs ever? Or did the decision to reduce their staffing by some 5,000 employees come after anticipating how the market would fare for the coming year rather than a single quarter?

Indeed are those new online ads, featuring someone who doesn’t want to be regarded as cool, trying to find a cheap note-book with a large screen, representative of more desperation on Microsoft’s part? Consider, instead, the one ad campaign they’ve presented that does attract favorable attention, in which a small child is observed doing fancy things on a PC. The kid is cute, the ad catches and keeps your attention. Microsoft has, for once, done something smart, but I don’t think that represents a trend.

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