The End of Windows as We Knew It

Wednesday May 11th 2016 by Rob Enderle

Microsoft seems to be remembering who the real Windows customer is.

It is interesting to see vendors create a very successful offering and then act as if the whole thing were an accident. That is kind of the case with Windows, and it is nice to see Satya Nadella’s Microsoft suddenly pivot in a way that suggests the company actually understands who's the real customer for Windows. That got lost for a while, and I think that is a large reason why the PC market largely stalled during the last decade or so. With Windows 10 becoming the most successful version of that OS in history, I am enjoying seeing the firm correct such an ancient problem.

Let’s revisit what happened and then look at what Microsoft is doing to fix the problem.

Operating Systems: Who’s The Customer?

If you were going to create an operating system, say for a car, who would the customer be? Would it be the driver, the fleet buyer of cars or would it be the car manufacturer? You’d likely think this was a stupid question because, of course, it would be the car manufacturer – they are the ones creating the solution. But that’s not what happened with Windows.

Yes, IBM initially was the customer for Windows. But then Microsoft pivoted and focused on the user. This was actually an improvement from the user’s perspective, but didn’t work all that well for IBM. Then, after winning the battle with IBM, which pitted the user-focused Windows 95 product against the IT-focused OS/2 product, Microsoft pivoted again and seemed to focus on IT with an OS/2-like product called Windows NT which became the base for the next generation of Windows.

Windows Vista and Windows 8 both represented shifts where it looked like Microsoft thought it was the customer because, in my opinion, they clearly weren’t in line with what original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), users or IT wanted.

User Interfaces

Generally, the folks that build a solution build the user interface that is at the heart of an OS like Windows. What a parts supplier, hardware or software, does is spread the cost of creating something across a group of customers. Thus, they are able to sell it cheaper than if the OEM created it themselves. Remember, at the beginning, IBM, Apple, Atari and Commodore (the folks that initially dominated computers) built their own operating systems. But IBM went to Microsoft and contracted with them to build an OS, and Microsoft was able to provide a solution for a fraction of what it would have cost IBM to create one.

I get that IBM seemingly wanted to take control of the OS and subordinate Microsoft, which forced a war. But the war changed Microsoft so that they thought they needed to own the user to protect themselves. In so doing, they seemed to lose track of the fact that they weren’t building an app, they were building part of a PC and thus needed to stay synced with hardware.

Instead, we had operating systems sold like apps and nearly completely decoupled from the hardware. If you wanted a new OS, you could get one and put it on pretty much anything that would run it. This meant instead of working with the OEMs and chip companies to highlight new hardware, much of Microsoft’s efforts were spent trying to get new features to work on old hardware and, increasingly, in my opinion, not only were there fewer reasons to buy a new PC but the user experience degraded.

It is interesting to note that up until about a decade ago, Windows migrations were very difficult. This hurt both the OEM’s ability to sell new hardware and Microsoft’s ability to sell new operating systems. I’ve never understood the rationalization for not fixing this sooner.

So What Changed?

Basically, Microsoft created Windows 10 to get everyone (well almost everyone) on the same version of Windows. Going forward, the OS you get on a piece of hardware will likely remain the same from birth to death. You’ll get patches and minor upgrades for free for a period of years, but if a major OS upgrade comes out, it will be designed to optimize then current breakthrough hardware and not run well or at all on older hardware. So there will likely be no discount upgrade pricing.

In my opinion, Microsoft is going to where they always should have been—being a far more integral part of the solution and focused on making money by helping the OEMs sell new PCs as opposed to making money regardless of whether new PCs are sold. While initially this strategy might not be as lucrative, strategically it should result in a far healthier PC market, and it should also increase customer satisfaction.

This last is because customers will see more value from the PCs they buy and they’ll see less breakage because the upgrades will be cleaner (with fewer attempts to migrate old apps and a tighter coupling to the Microsoft store and OneDrive). Because this should result in a faster replacement cycle, it should also create a higher immunity to malware (which often targets old OSes and aging hardware).

The Way It Always Should Have Been

It amazes me how many vendors don’t seem to understand their own business model. Microsoft seemed to lose track of who their customer was for Windows. Their recent change indicates a reset where they are aligned once again with the OEMs, and that should both remove a lot of execution missteps and return a great deal of health to the PC market.

It should, over time, also significantly improve customer satisfaction by making better PC solutions because the parts will be more closely coupled from design through execution. This also showcases that even decades late, it is always a good thing to revisit what you are doing and ask whether it is the right thing. Eliminating major OS upgrades on existing hardware is the right thing to do. The end result should be a far better experience, and I actually think both users and IT will be far happier as a result.

Oh, and if you still haven’t upgraded your own machine to Windows 10, don’t forget you have until July 29. After that (with one exception) the free upgrade window is closed, and you’ll be paying full price (not a discounted upgrade price) for the move.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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