Microsoft Vista and new horizons

There’s some funny goings on inside computers and other devices at the moment, many of which have some kind of impact on the consumer space. Here’s a selection: Intel is releasing advanced management technologies ‘ I don’t know the full story, but these enable a computer to be interrogated via the network without even booting up, for example to aid diagnostics or firmware modifications. Motherboards are coming out that can power down unused elements, saving electricity and reducing heat output. USB sticks can store and run applications, and even boot their own environments. Laptops are being released that can boot either as a computer or as a DVD player ‘ I understand the latter boots with a stripped-down Linux kernel. All kinds of mobile devices are coming to market, some more useful than others (MP3 camera, anyone? Games console phone?) but which are becoming cheaper as fast as they are growing in complexity. We have set-top boxes and games consoles that are, in effect, computers, but they hide their true form behind a vastly simplified, appropriately customised interface. We have mobile phones and MP3 players pre-loaded with MySpace and XM/Napster services, each offering what is, to all intents and purposes, a browser interface.

Not so very long ago a computer was a computer, it had a processor in the middle of the motherboard and some memory on the side, it ran an operating system and supported a variety of applications. From this general purpose model things are becoming awfully specialised ‘ these days, the device and the application are often bundled. The iPod, for example, is a computer with a hard drive, a processor and memory. I assume it runs its own chip-level OS and application, straight from, and on top of the hardware.

In parallel with this, there is an evolution in how consumer computers are being used, particularly by kids. When my children log onto the computer they tend to use it for email, chat and web access. As we have discussed before, the kids of today see the Internet as a place ‘ Myspace is a community, a joint (though they wouldn’t use that word) to hang out in. Anyone with a number of kids will have experienced the fights to get on the computer ‘ not to do anything ‘productive’ but to see who of their friends is on. We can see Mark Thompson’s latest pronouncements about the future of the Beeb (think: teenagers, content, communities), as both corroboration and catalyst of this trend. Whats interesting in all of this is that technology is becoming a lottery. Nobody’s too bothered about who’s responsible for a given device or application: most important is, is it cool, and do my friends have one. The Myspace device (coming soon to Europe) and the iPod are competitor products, but nobody really cares who was responsible for what happens inside the box.

What’s Windows Vista got to do with all that? Perhaps nothing, and that’s just the point. Microsoft’s hold on its incumbent position has always been based on two premises ‘ first, that the operating system is a necessary basis for general purpose computing, and second, that people want to standardise on the same platform as everybody else. Now, however, the ‘thing’ is migrating to the application layer ‘ For Myspace and XM it is the portal, for the iPod it is the interface, the device. If the goal is to give the masses what they want, what’s to stop running a Myspace environment directly on top of the silicon? Could we envisage a device that offers integrated videoblogging and email, with nary a Windows logo in sight? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that a Google-branded device (probably “powered by” Sun, you heard it here first) might do rather well, not yet but at some point in the future. In a sociological twist on Metcalfe’s law, its less and less about the technology, and more and more about the shared experience: the success of any such device will be down to whether a critical mass of like-minded types jump on board.

I don’t know the final answer to this, but I do know that there are going to be even more choices in the future than there are now. As consumers form into communities, each community will choose the most appropriate mechanism for the time, and after a while it will move on. In such a lottery there will be many participants and few winners. Of course Microsoft has its own games console (the 360), which is doing rather well; however, it is unlikely that the company can retain its present level of penetration in the consumer space on games console sales alone. Equally, Microsoft has all kinds of digital home initiatives, but for device manufacturers there is little incentive to pay a stipend to Seattle. Windows Embedded means locking oneself in and reducing future flexibility, and’indeed, companes like News International (owner of Myspace) are increasingly in competition with Microsoft/MSN. What possible incentive could there be, to’shackle themselves to the enemy?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe Microsoft is sitting on its laurels. Neither is it losing on all fronts – the messenger preference of local kids appears to be MSN, and for email, Hotmail. However,’the number of fronts is opening all the time. And while Microsoft may have me-too offerings in the shape of Microsoft Search and Windows Live, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Microsoft’s core faith lies in its operating system. Microsoft is Windows, and without it the company becomes no different from any other software and media company.

Over in the business world, there’s plenty of milage left in the OS (though this is fragmenting as well – think Hypervisor). In the consumer computer’market however, the days of Microsoft’s dominance may well be coming to an end. If indeed, the market continues to exist at all.

Hat tip to Cote, without whose comment I might have got away without writing this!

Microsoft Vista and new horizons

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