Technology Transitions

I’ve posted a couple of notes recently about some of the transitions that seem to be underway in the technology industry, and how Microsoft, in particular, is reacting to them.  I’ve recently read a couple of additional articles that I think may shed some light on what’s going on.  As I’ve mentioned before, my own perception is that Microsoft has gotten too wedded to the “Desktop PC + GUI Applications” paradigm with which they have achieved so much success.

The first article appeared in the most recent issue of the Economist; it focuses on the de facto alliance that has existed for years between Microsoft and Intel, which has significantly helped both companies.  Intel has delivered more and more powerful and capable processor chips, and Microsoft has taken advantage of those improvements, thereby also stoking the demand for the more powerful CPUs.  Intel is being challenged today not only by its traditional rival, Advanced Micro Devices [AMD], but also by smaller firms, like ARM, who in some cases have proved more nimble in addressing the evolving market for slightly less powerful chips, with lower power consumption, for use in devices like smart phone and netbooks.    But Microsoft probably faces the more significant challenge: it has yet to demonstrate an ability to consistently succeed in market segments other than its traditional PC concentrations.  The withdrawal of the Kin mobile phones, after only 48 days on the market, is merely the most recent visible embarrassment.   Despite Microsoft’s massive investment in Windows Live and the Bing search engine, neither product has been an unqualified success.  I’ve talked before about the irony of the success of Apple’s iPad, given that Microsoft has been pushing tablet computing for years.

One possible explanation of Microsoft’s tablet problem, which in a sense is representative of broader issues, is given in an article at Ars Technica.  The article is focused on some recent comments made by Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, about the tablet computing market, and the company’s plans in that area.

“The operating system is called Windows,” claimed Steve Ballmer when asked about Microsoft’s plans for the tablet/slate/pad form factor at the company’s annual Financial Analyst Meeting on Thursday.

The article’s thesis is that this comment embodies one of Microsoft’s central problems in this market segment: that it wants to make the tablet PC work just like a Windows PC on the desktop, and not a different sort of device with its own particular strengths:

… still the company is persevering: stick a regular PC operating system on a laptop, give it a touchscreen, and then take away the keyboard and pixel-perfect pointing device. Ballmer even reiterated the company’s position: slates are just another PC form factor.

In contrast, the Apple iPad is definitely not a differently-sized Mac.  It doesn’t run Mac software; as the article points out, the applications for the iPad were designed for it, and, in particular, for its touch-screen interface.  This matters.  Even if you don’t have stubby thick fingers like mine, you can’t possibly point as precisely with a finger as with a mouse.  As the article points out, many of the standard Windows interface features are just too small to be easy to use with a finger as the pointing device.

(I saw a cruder version of this problem quite a few years ago, when a vendor was demonstrating an options trading system they wanted to sell to us.  The system used a touch screen; one of its “features” was that, when the trader needed to enter a text field, such as the name of a counter-party, the system drew a picture of a QWERTY keyboard on the touch screen, to be used for data entry.  Now, this was by no means a mobile system; it required a fairly powerful desktop workstation to run — a workstation that always came complete with an actual, physical keyboard.  Why anyone would want to hunt and peck on a touch screen when (s)he could just type was never explained.)

Windows, and Windows applications, in their current incarnations, are just not suited to use with a tablet device like the iPad.

Windows, and Windows applications, are not designed for tablets. Windows is designed for a pixel-perfect pointer (be it mouse, trackpad, or TrackPoint), and a keyboard. Band-aid fixes to give a thin veneer of touch-friendliness are not good or deep enough. To make Windows a touch operating system requires every single aspect of its user interface to be overhauled. The same is true of every application.

Almost certainly, there are many core components of the Windows system that can be re-purposed for a touch-screen device, but I think the article makes a good case that a substantial re-work of the user interface will be required.

I hope I am not sounding like a broken record† on this, but some of the parallels between Microsoft in 2010, and IBM in about 1988, are getting really interesting.

†I wonder how long it will be before the expression, a “broken record”, will be a puzzle to most readers.

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