In Microsoft’s vision of an ideal world, Windows would have fully supplanted the original Mac OS 20 years ago. For a while in the mid-1990s, it appeared that Apple might allow that to happen by default. But when Apple’s executives made a final, desperate move — to acquire Steve Jobs’ NeXT in late 1996 — the future of the company was cemented.
Only it wasn’t obvious then.
But when you look at how things turned out, you can see how Apple saw our mobile future and Microsoft continued to live in the 1980s. Today’s Microsoft is doing well enough, with promising sales of apps and cloud services. Windows got them there, but remains mostly confined to traditional PC desktops. The mobile handset version is barely on life support, and Microsoft is selling some Surface tablets, but only a fraction of the number of iPads shipped by Apple.
Even though hundreds of millions of users are running the latest and greatest OS from Microsoft, Windows 10, it’s ongoing success is somewhat of a question mark. For a year — and only a year — it was a free download. During that time, Microsoft made some peculiar moves to force upgrades, such as downloading the installer in the background without your approval, and sometimes running the installer without prior consent. A curious change in Windows dialog conventions even allowed you to dismiss a prompt about Windows 10, and rather than simply Exit the dialog, it would start the installer.
Today, consumer upgrades for Windows 10 start at $119. Predictably, the upgrade pace has stalled and, according to some estimates, the number of users may have actually declined slightly. Is this a statistical blip, or just a reflection of the migration pace leveling off?
According to Microsoft, Windows 10 will remain Windows 10 for a while, as feature updates will roll out on a fairly regular basis. This will, of course, create confusion, because you won’t know what version you have without checking an otherwise meaningless build number.
Still, Microsoft is installed on over 90% of the PC desktops around the world. There’s an existing application ecosystem with at least 669,000 selections at last count. While overall PC sales are less than they used to be, that’s not something to dismiss. But the share of revenue generated by Windows for Microsoft is reportedly just 10% of the total.
Now into this environment, one online blogger is suggesting that it’s time for Microsoft to ditch Windows.
The blogger takes Google’s Android as an example of a Linux-based OS that has come to dominate the mobile space with an estimated market share of over 87%. That’s encroaching on the territory occupied by Windows in the PC market. But Apple’s iOS is still prospering, so it’s hard to see where it’ll get much better.
Regardless, the theory goes that Microsoft ought to consider phasing out Windows since it is expensive to keep it going and running acceptably on thousands and thousands of different computer systems, and the revenue just isn’t worth the bother at a time when the computing world has embraced mobile.
So how is it going to be replaced? Well, the blogger cites Google’s Andromeda as possible example. It’s a merger of Android and Chrome OS. While Chrome OS is designed to run on an Intel-based PC, it’s really just a cloud-based system that runs most apps within browser windows. It may work well enough for basic computing tasks on cheap gear where an online connection is almost always available, but it cannot possibly replace a full-bore Windows PC with major productivity apps that include Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud.
As the blogger admits, Linux on the desktop was pitiful failure. A key reason is that open source developers mostly built operating system interfaces that followed, rather poorly, the Windows model. Without agreement on one interface, and one developer ecosystem, it was a fragmented mess. Android works fine on a Linux kernel. Linux is also widely used for web servers and other specialty purposes, but not so much otherwise.
As much as Microsoft appears to be supporting Linux versions of its cloud-based developer tools, that’s doesn’t mean that Windows can be thrown away and developers, with huge app investments, can suddenly be cast aside.
Apple found a successful way to move developers from one computing platform and operating system to another. Consider the migrations from Motorola 680×0 chips to PowerPC in the 1990s, and to Intel beginning in 2005. Consider how traditional Mac OS developers were guided to create macOS apps. But Apple’s developer network and user base was far smaller than Microsoft and it still took years with some missteps in order to complete the migration.
When Apple delivered iOS, it used developer frameworks from OS X as the building blocks. Developers could be apps using the same Xcode for Mac developer tools used to build apps for Macs.
For Microsoft to give up on Windows without a replacement and a well-defined and fairly smooth migration path would be suicidal. If developers had to start from scratch, would they embrace some unknown and untested Linux framework, or would they just go all Mac?
Yes, perhaps Microsoft should consider a future without Windows; it’s no doubt already being done. But this is something that will take years to accomplish, and it’s fair to say Microsoft isn’t going to cede that space to one of its main rivals, Google. I suppose it’s possible that Microsoft could just spin off Windows into a separate company and let them go their own way. But Windows users shouldn’t fear that the computing platform on which they depend — with all its well-known flaws — is going to be replaced any time soon.
Again, if that were to happen, the biggest beneficiary might just be Apple.
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