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  • The Microsoft Smoke and Mirrors Report

    October 13th, 2010

    As Windows 7 receives surprisingly favorable reviews from the tech media, I have to wonder why there are so few critical comments about Microsoft’s ongoing claims of innovative products that are actually imitative.

    Take the infamous ribbon that has graced recent versions of Office for Windows and the Mac. That it’s a context-sensitive toolbar — changing based on the function you’re using — is supposedly a unique or at least innovative feature. But that’s absurd. There have been a number of other applications over the years, including CorelDRAW for the Mac (no longer being developed or supported) that offered toolbars of that sort. And let’s not forget Adobe InDesign, where the toolbar also changes depending on which tool or function you select. So what makes the ribbon so different? Larger icons?

    Microsoft sure has a strange concept of innovation.

    With Windows 7, Microsoft’s “innovation” is the use of tiles and hubs rather than icons and folders. Indeed, when you look at the Home screen, you might recall the clear resemblance to some of those Mac OS launching docks, such as the original Launcher from the Classic Mac OS.

    I suppose Microsoft ought to be congratulated for building an interface that doesn’t look like another iPhone knock-off. But when Microsoft pulls a stunt of this sort, they risk making it more difficult for customers to become acclimated to the OS. Ditching standard menu bars in Windows 7 for their own apps was another foolish decision that, while surely a different approach, hardly made for a more productive environment.

    As far as the handset makers are concerned, the first crop of Windows 7 smartphones appear to be little different from the Android OS gear the same companies already build. The biggest change is the OS, which surely reduces development costs.

    The problem is that, once again, Microsoft may have a decent enough product, but they fail to travel new roads. Using a tile rather than an icon doesn’t count. They haven’t actually rethought the concept of smartphone interfaces in a way that makes the product functionally superior to existing devices, and you’d think that’s what Microsoft had to do in order to salvage the Windows Mobile platform.

    Even cut, copy and paste isn’t supported, although it will supposedly be added some time next year. But that’s Microsoft’s way, which is to introduce something that is inferior in some ways to the competition, but then boast that hey’ll remedy that shortcoming in the future. That may have worked in the PC operating system space, but the smartphone business is moving too fast. The competition will be busy adding new features next year, just as Microsoft struggles to offer what you could get this year.

    This doesn’t mean that the spate of Windows 7 smartphones arriving this holiday season can’t or won’t succeed. It sure seems that Microsoft will back the products with plenty of high-power advertising, and the same is probably true for their largest domestic carrier, AT&T.

    For companies that have previously deployed Windows Mobile gear, or are otherwise heavily invested in Microsoft products, such as Exchange Server, I suppose there will be a perceived advantage in buying up batches of the new smartphones. That is, after they run them in test environments to make sure they actually operate satisfactorily, and provide the requisite level of security.

    Since Windows 7 is a version 1.0 product, you can also expect that there will be early release bugs of one sort or another, although that won’t be clear until the final shipping products are reviewed in the next few weeks.

    The best I can say, absent a thorough examination of the shipping product, is that Microsoft is at least trying to appear different, and offer the veneer of innovation. In the end, the marketplace will decide whether it’s a case of being too little and too late.

    Remember that in 2011, iOS 5 will be available, along with several interim upgrades to the Android OS. There will also be revisions to RIM’s BlackBerry software, and other updates. If Microsoft is still struggling to add last year’s features into their mobile OS, they may indeed suffer the same fate that they confronted with the Zune.

    As you recall, the Zune digital media player was also a perfectly good product, with a snazzy interface and decent performance. But Microsoft’s concept of social networking, “Join the Social,” was another symptom of the pathetic efforts of a company that was utterly clueless about how young people actually interact online.

    Time will tell whether tiles and hubs will prove to be demonstrably better than icons and folders, or whether just being different ends up being just another bad idea from Microsoft. And they’ve had far too many of those in recent years.

    In the end, Microsoft may actually be better off shedding their consumer division, and selling it off to someone who truly understands the business. There’s still plenty of cash to be made from traditional PC and server software, although that is a market that will be sharply reduced in the years to come.

    Or maybe Microsoft should just give back the money to the shareholders and close up shop. But didn’t someone say the very same thing about Apple some years ago?

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