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Does Windows 7 Make a Difference?

As some of you have heard, the PC industry appears to have recovered from a severe case of the doldrums, reflected in declining sales for part of 2009 mostly as the result of the world economic crisis. There was, however, one shining light in all this grief, aside from Apple’s record profits of course, and that’s the netbook.

So if you felt you just had to squander $300 or $400 on a tiny note-book computer, you were in good company. Indeed, it may well be that it was this product segment rather than the arrival of Windows 7 that impacted the PC industry the most. But is that good news for Microsoft?

Well, I suppose it is if many of those new computers were shipped with Windows, particularly Windows 7. It wasn’t so good if they were supplied with Windows XP, or to add insult to injury, Linux. Later this year, Microsoft’s worst nightmare will be the arrival of Google’s Chrome OS.

You do see all those awful ads on TV for Windows 7, where someone touts a lame feature, often not unique to Windows, such as wireless networking, and pronounces it so special that he believes he invented it. Now I don’t pretend to know whether the public is foolish enough to buy into this foolishness, or even understands that these spots are designed to promote a new PC operating system rather than a computer with an unknown brand name. Yes, the focus of the message is really that vague.

But that has always represented Microsoft’s dilemma, which is to somehow separate the generic PC from its own operating system, or even that it really makes a difference to the average customer, unless they choose to go Mac instead.

Now I’m quite certain Microsoft will use the improved sales figures as vindication for their operating system strategy. Even though they make very little money from OEM licenses for the very cheapest PCs sporting basic versions of Windows, a sale is a sale and no sense complaining about it.

On the other hand, I wonder if Microsoft has begun to understand their onward march to irrelevance. You see, very little of what they say these days is really taken seriously. Oh, Windows 7 fixes all the problems with Vista? Well and good, but what about XP users who want to upgrade and face a draconian installation process? What about Apple’s forthcoming tablet computer?

The Zune HD? What’s that? Did anyone really buy those things during the holiday season? Does anyone remember what a Zune HD is or was? Does Microsoft even make those things anymore? Do they somehow hope to morph the product line into a full-fledged smartphone to complete with the iPhone?

Who is competing with the iPhone anyway? Oh yes, Nokia by dint of ongoing legal actions and, of course, Google. But wait a minute, isn’t Google actually taking market away from Microsoft, by signing up the very same companies who used to build Windows Mobile handsets? Is Google’s target Apple, or Microsoft? Or do they just want to continue to sell ads, without regard to which gadgets those ads appear on?

Another question: Is Apple’s recent acquisition of a mobile ad service an indication that Google may soon find itself exiled from the iPhone? There is a recent rumor, in fact, that Apple plans to switch its iPhone and perhaps Mac search capabilities to Microsoft’s Bing. There’s even a Bing app for the iPhone if you want to see whether the changeover is worth the bother. Or maybe Apple will just build its own search engine, establish its own ad revenue stream, and leave it to Google and Microsoft to fight their battles on someone else’s turf.

Now that Windows 7 has been out for a while, is there any special feature, other than the faux Dock, that’s even worth shouting about? Is the enterprise ready to switch wholesale, or will they just wait until they’re ready to buy batches of new PCs for the office? More than likely, Microsoft’s next quarterly revenue will begin to tell the tale. If sales and profits come across as flat or declining, and perhaps more employees are set to receive pink slips, it’ll be just another round of evidence of the company’s long-term decline.

Certainly, giving European customers a browser ballot box has to add insult to injury. People are deserting Internet Explorer in droves and former Windows advocates have joined the crowed. The onward migration to Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera continues unabated, the pace is only going to accelerate.

Maybe Apple’s sales increases won’t prove an avalanche of Windows desertions just yet, but when the netbook craze dies off, as it inevitably will, how many customers will just continue to buy new PC boxes and be satisfied with more of the same? You have to wonder if Microsoft is even aware that time is no longer on their side.