Bill was and is unique in this industry and changed a lot over the course of time he ran Microsoft. He started out as one of the barbarians challenging the hated status quo and eventually became a part of the new hated status quo for the following generation. He, and Microsoft, provide a cautionary tale for Google in that just as Google has positioned itself with its “do no evil” model as the anti-Microsoft, Microsoft positioned itself as the anti-IBM and eventually became much of what it didn’t like as it aged.
I could spend my time talking about why that was and how to avoid it but I doubt many of you would really care and those that should listen likely wouldn’t anyway. But I’m not jaded or anything. Instead, let’s take a look at what I think is coming in the next few years from Microsoft and make some predictions about their future.
Windows in the Clouds
I think largely to the pounding that Apple has been giving Microsoft on TV with the Mac vs. Windows campaign Microsoft is the most focused I’ve seen them since Windows 95 on building something that will allow them to do the same to Apple. They are thinking big guns here and there is a huge effort to tie together a broad set of features into Windows 7 – something I’ve been calling Unlimited Vista (because I think the name fits and because it is fun to drive the Microsoft naming folk’s nuts).
We already know the product will support multi-touch and address the major reason that Tablet PCs didn’t catch on and that is the inconsistency in the interface. With Tablet PCs the only place you could use the technology was on a Tablet PC display and you couldn’t buy a monitor that supported the feature at a reasonable price. So, unlike mice and keyboards, a user couldn’t depend on and constantly use the interface unless they lived only on a tablet. A touch interface coupled with the new low cost touchscreens like the new HP SmartTouch PC has makes this technology available to everyone.
In addition, with the maturing Live properties Unlimited Vista will exist as much in the Cloud (Internet) as it does on the desktop. This will better integrate things like Symantec search, productivity applications, and multimedia into the overall experience.
Finally, now that Microsoft has apparently gotten over their embarrassment with Microsoft Bob, they are working on actually getting creative again on the user interface and allowing the PC OEMs to explore unique experiences. You see that in the new Dell Dock and in the HP TouchSmart. This means the experience will both improve a lot and vary more between vendors going forward.
One of the things that have come hard to Microsoft is the concept that they aren’t the best representation of what the market or the world wants. Towards the end of the 90’s Bill Gates had a significant change-of-heart and this change started its drive into the Microsoft culture. They now have programs like Unlimited Potential which are focused as much on changing the world for the better as they are on selling products; in fact the folks I talk to in that group are actually more focused on improving the world right now than in sales – or so it seems.
The war with the Linux and various open source groups is largely over and in a broad sense the open source folks won. What they won was a change-of-heart inside Microsoft and the rapid rise of Sam Ramji in the organization as the top internal open source advocate. The process inside the company has dramatically changed and rather than doing brain dead projects like “get the facts” they are aggressively meeting with, licensing to, and recruiting open source talent across their eco system.
Currently the server and tools business has been the greatest beneficiary of this last move and it is the most financially successful as a result. Embracing customers and doing what they have been asking for is generally a good plan for success and this division has demonstrated a deep understanding of that for several years now.
Xbox and Zune
I’m still under the impression that at some point a senior executive is going to raise their hand and point out that both of these are counter strategic to Microsoft and would be better off as separate entities. However, having said that these two platforms are increasingly going to be enhanced with networked resources like downloads from companies like Netflix and ever broader services.
Zune is on a faster hardware cycle time and the latest offering improved dramatically from the square brown turd (now ask me what I really think?) the first generation was. The next generation is expected to improve sharply but now that Apple is entrenched with accessories, buyers are comfortable with iTunes and it will be even more difficult to get competitive migrations.
The Xbox is also due for a major refresh in the next couple of years. I would expect something much more solid state, much quieter, and much more reliable than the current version. They are likely to explore licensing on the next round consistent with the overall corporate strategy and Dell has expressed an interest in having Xbox games run on high end XPS systems. That is increasingly becoming a possibility as Microsoft more aggressively accepts licensing models where they previously did not.
Windows Mobile 7
This is when the Danger stuff likely makes it into the platform and we get some really interesting changes to Microsoft Mobile phones. This may increasingly be how we touch Microsoft, though as I’m still expecting laptop computers to give way to Smartphone’s over the next ten years and increasingly use “cloud” services to close the technology gap. We have MIDs and UMPCs to play with until then but we are rapidly moving to a connected and even more mobile world where it will be harder and harder to find personal time.
This was probably an ideal time for Bill to leave Microsoft. His interests have clearly moved to environmental things and with global warming and gas prices both increasing dramatically it is kind of nice to know his wealth will at least be partially focused on things that could help the planet. Microsoft couldn’t exist without him but needs someone who will focus on the company as it is a vastly different firm than the one he started.
A lot of the old guard continues to leave their companies I wonder if the next generation is truly ready to pick up the torch. Ready or not it is clearly being passed.