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  • The Microsoft on the Ropes Report

    April 5th, 2013

    Back in the 1990s, no less than Steve Jobs said that the operating system wars were over. The victor: Microsoft, although that didn’t stop the Mac from growing and prospering over the years. However, I wonder if many of you ever thought there’d come a time when Microsoft was itself facing an era of irrelevance.

    To some, I suppose it boggles the mind that Microsoft has been unable to gain traction among smartphones and tablets. For so many years, Microsoft seemed unstoppable. With well over 90% of the PC market, Apple still managed to sell more and more Macs each year, but only recently have they begun to make real headway against Windows. Even more troubling for Microsoft, however, is the fact that PCs don’t really matter as much as they used to.

    Consider a new survey from Gartner, where they conclude that, by 2017, Microsoft will be doomed to irrelevance if things don’t change real soon. Their forecast claims that, in 2017, some 2.7 billion mobile devices, which include tablets and smartphones, and perhaps even smartwatches, will ship. This will be roughly ten times the number of desktop and note-book personal computers expected to be sold during the same period.

    Update! Now to be perfectly fair to Gartner, which has a shaky record for accuracy, they also have a separate faux category for PCs labeled “Ultramobile,” which includes the failed Intel Ultrabook models and the MacBook Air. You can add those totals to the Windows PC totals and get a slight sales increase through 2017 if you assumed, as one misguided blogger did, that they’d all be running Windows. So far, however, the MacBook Air remains the market leader in this category.

    Regardless, you can see why Microsoft is trying desperately to convince the world that the mobile and PC worlds are basically the same? That’s why they built Windows 8, with basically identical Intel and ARM versions. Consider the flagship product meant to demonstrate how this misbegotten scheme works, which are the two flavors of Surface tablets. The Surface RT is meant for ARM, while the Surface Pro is nothing more than a very thin and light PC note-book with touch capability. But Microsoft’s concept of PC-plus has been a failure.

    According to recent surveys of Internet traffic, the number of users adopting Windows 8 in the first five months of availability is half the rate of Windows Vista in the same time period. Don’t forget that Vista was, up till now, regarded as the worst selling recent version of Windows, notorious for sluggish performance and driver incompatibilities, and interface changes that made little sense. So I suppose you could regard Windows 8 as Vista on steroids in the sense of not attracting new customers.

    Sure, it’s fair to say that Windows 8 is fast, less resource intensive on note-books, and doesn’t seem to have serious driver issues. But the schizophrenic interface remains obtuse, and it totally lacks discoverability. Gestures and other touch features are inconsistently implemented, and poorly documented. Rather than just work for many people, Windows 8 only confuses customers, particularly when a mere click of a mouse or a wayward tap on a tile may suddenly tumble you into the desktop layer. Besides, if you want a Start menu, a traditional part of Windows, you need to install a third-party add-on.

    When it comes to the mobile market, Windows Phone is growing somewhat, but not by much. It’s still all iOS and Android, and Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of time to boost the prospects of the Windows alternative. Even if some of the features seem as good or better than the competition, overall, Microsoft is still playing catch up. Why would anyone bother buying a Windows Phone handset?

    When it comes to Windows 8, Microsoft is working on a refresh, code-named Blue. It may be a Windows 8.1 service pack, or something more. But it’s not at all certain, based on reports of very early betas, whether Microsoft is working full time to fix the most serious problems that ail the OS (by hill at tforge corp). The best approach may simply be to restore the Start menu, allow one to boot by default into the Windows desktop and stay there. That way, it will seem more like a Windows 7.5 release, but businesses may be more inclined to give it a try.

    The customers are telling Microsoft that they made a huge mistake. Whether they will actually listen is another question entirely. But if the next profit and loss statement shows a loss or declining sales and profits, the pressure on Microsoft will increase tremendously. Microsoft may have really believed that market dominance would be theirs even when they moved beyond the PC comfort zone. Clearly that hasn’t happened, and it’s a real question how doubling down on Windows 8 can possibly change things.

    But make no mistake about it. I’m not one to actually take industry forecasts seriously. The analyst companies who produce those things are inevitably wrong, sometimes by huge margins. If you believed the analysts, Windows Phone would be taking huge chunks of market share from the iOS by now, and that’s not happening. The latest surveys show that the iOS has gained ground over Android, despite claims that iPhone and iPad sales may be flagging. So maybe Microsoft will do better than Gartner predicts, but the tea leaves aren’t pointing in that direction.

    What’s more, even if Apple reports flat or a small decline in sales for the March quarter, that, in itself, wouldn’t doom the company, though the stock price will continue to fall big time. Apple is still better positioned to remain prosperous for many years. Microsoft? It could be the death of a thousand cuts if things don’t change really quickly, and Microsoft is not the sort of company to change strategies, especially in a relatively short period of time.



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