Going after Microsoft's operating system used to be hopeless. When I covered the company for the Wall Street Journal in the 1990s, I chronicled one failed attempt after another by software innovators to wrest control of the field from Bill Gates. IBM failed. Sun failed. Borland. Everybody. By the end of the 1990s, the quest had become a kind of ritualized suicide for software companies. Irresistible forces seemed to compel Gates's rivals, driving them toward self-destruction.Zachary enumera los cambios en la posición dominante de Microsoft, claramente vinculados con su escasa flexibilidad para adaptarse a los cambios tecnológicos radicales que se han sucedido en los últimos diez años:
The networking company Novell, which Schmidt once ran, could have been one of these casualties. Perhaps Schmidt's managerial experience and intellectual engagement with computer code immunized him against the OS bug. In any case, he knew that the task of dislodging Microsoft was bigger than creating a better OS. While others misguidedly focused on the many engineering shortcomings of Windows, Schmidt knew that Microsoft was the leader not for technical reasons but for business ones, such as pricing practices and synergies between its popular office applications and Windows.
What has changed? Google has challenged the Microsoft franchise, further diminishing a declining force. The latest quarter gave Microsoft the worst year in its history. Revenue from its various Windows PC programs, including operating systems, fell 29 percent in the fiscal quarter that ended in June. Some of the decline stems from the global economic slowdown. But broad shifts in information technology are also reducing the importance of the personal computer and its central piece of software, the OS. In many parts of the world, including the two most populous countries, China and India, mobile phones are increasingly the most common means of reaching the Web. And in the rich world, netbooks, which are ideal for Web surfing, e-mailing, and Twittering, account for one in every 10 computers sold.Zachary apunta el retardo de Microsoft en entender el significado de la aparición de Internet:
Another powerful trend that undercuts Microsoft is toward programs that look and function the same way in any operating system. "Over the past five years there's been a steady move away from Windows-specific to applications being OS-neutral," says Michael Silver, a software analyst at the research firm Gartner.
One example would be Adobe Flash. Such popular social applications as Facebook and Twitter are also indifferent to operating systems, offering users much the same experience no matter what personal computer or handheld device they use. Since so many people live in their social-media sites, the look and feel of these sites has become at least as important as the user interface of the OS. The effect is to shrink the role of the OS, from conductor of the orchestra to merely one of its soloists. "The traditional operating system is becoming less and less important," says Paul Maritz, chief executive of VMware, who was once the Microsoft executive in charge of the operating system. By and large, he has noted, "people are no longer writing traditional Windows applications."
Microsoft's troubles make the company's OS doubly vulnerable. Vista, its current version, has been roundly criticized, and it has never caught on as widely as the company anticipated; many Microsoft customers continue to use the previous version of Windows, XP. A new version being released this fall, Windows 7, promises to remedy the worst problems of Vista. But even 7 may not address a set of technical issues that both galvanize Microsoft's critics and stoke the appetites of Brin and Page to create a more pleasing alternative. In their view, the Microsoft OS takes too long to boot up, and it slows down even the newest hardware. It is too prone to viral attacks and too complicated.
The main reason why control of the OS no longer guarantees technological power, of course, is the ascent of the Internet. Gates made few references to the Internet in the first edition of his book The Road Ahead, published in November 1995. Neither Windows NT nor its mass-market incarnation, Windows 95, was intimately connected to the Web. With the spread of Netscape's browser, though, Gates began to realize that the individual PC and its operating system would have to coöperate with the public information network. By bringing a browser into the OS and thus giving it away, Microsoft recovered its momentum (and killed off a new generation of competitors). Then, preoccupied once again with control of the OS, Microsoft missed the sudden, spectacular rise of search engines. When Google's popularity persisted, Microsoft was unable to do with the search engine what he had done with the browser.
In one sense, this failure to adapt to a networked world reflected the integrity of Gates's vision of the PC as a tool of individual empowerment. In the mid-1970s, when the news of the first inexpensive microprocessor-based computers reached Gates at Harvard, he instantly understood the implications. Until then, computers had been instruments of organizations and agents of bureaucratization. The PC brought about a revolution, offering the little guy a chance to harness computing power for his personal ends.
Technology is now moving away from the individualistic and toward the communal--toward the "cloud" (see our Briefing on cloud computing, July/August 2009). Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, who has been the most influential engineer at the company since Gates retired from executive management, describes the process under way as a return to the computing experience of his youth, in the 1970s, when folks shared time on computers and the network reigned supreme. Cloud technologies "have happened before," he said in June. "In essence, this pendulum is swinging." Similarly, Schmidt recalls how, in the early 1980s, Sun Microsystems' OS was developed for a computer that lacked local storage.The return to the network has big implications for the business of operating systems. Computer networks used to be closed, private: in the 1960s and '70s they revolved around IBM mainframe operating systems and, later, linked Windows machines on desktops and in back rooms. Today's computer networks are more like public utilities, akin to the electricity and telephone systems. The operating system is less important.