I am a technology fan first and foremost and secondly a long time Microsoft user of their products and software as I have grown up, like most of my generation (I am 29) using Microsoft technology in both my daily work and personal life as Microsoft / Windows put simply was that ubiquitous that computing WAS Microsoft to most people. However since Vista, and especially since Bill left back in July 2008 Microsoft seem intent on shooting themselves in the foot and not moving forward hence the main thrust of this post – I think unless something drastic happens in the next 6 months they will be irrelevant within 5 years at most.
A brief history of (my) time with Microsoft Software
My own personal relationship with Microsoft started back with Windows 95 and has continued since then via Windows 98, 2000, XP, Vista, WHS (Windows Home Server) , 7, their server operating systems (2000, 2003 and 2008), the Office suite of software, their programming languages (ASP, .NET) and their mobile versions CE, Pocket PC, Mobile, 6, 6.1, 6.5. Splitting things up let me explain where I think Microsoft have done well and where they have stagnated or even worse gone backwards:
Home Operating Systems
Windows lead the world back in the early home computing days of Windows 98 and effectively created what we all take for granted as working home computers these days. They then released Millennium Edition which was possibly their lowest point and reached their peak with Windows XP. XP worked well most of the time, was intuitive and fairly light – certainly when compared to the heavy best that replaced it – Vista. So many things were wrong with Vista it was unfunny but after Service Pack 1 at least you could use your computer almost as well as it worked with the older Windows XP. Then Windows 7 came along, which is what I am typing this post on and it has honestly been a reliable operating system so far but there are still small glitches like thumbnails not showing as soon as I go into my folders, shutting down gives me warnings about background tasks still running and this is all on a fairly high end Core i7 based desktop with 3GB triple channel Ram and fancy graphics card.
Yesterday, I tried the latest version of Ubuntu – 10.04 Lucid Lynx and honestly if I hadn’t have paid for Windows 7 already and I was building a new PC I would use this as my default operating system as everything just works, it looks nice and it hides the geeky parts of the underlying Linux back end very well.
From Windows Vista onwards I think Microsoft have lost their way in the digital, tech hungry homes of today. Windows 7 is good but if we are all honest it is what Vista should have been all those years ago and it hasn’t exactly been a game changer has it?
The only product that has excited me and been innovative over the last few years has been something called Windows Home Server which explained simply, sits on your home network sharing files, allowing remote access to your files and computers as well as most importantly, automatically backs up all your home computer’s each night. A lot of you probably won’t have heard of this though as Microsoft never really promoted it to the mainstream and things don’t look like they will be changing anytime soon as the new version, codenamed Vail (see the excellent We Got Served preview) has not got the killer feature for me and other long term WHS users have wanted – Windows Media Centre built in to allow you to stick a TV Tuner in and record TV and stream it wherever you want within your home and externally.
Put simply Windows 7 will be my last Microsoft operating system with an old copy of Windows XP or Windows 7 on a virtual machine somewhere for the rare old programs that I might need to use someday.
Server operating systems
Windows 2003 is fairly rock solid as most will agree and 2008 is fine by all accounts but as a seasoned web developer I made the decision 2 years ago to abandon the bloat of Windows ASP.NET and start developing in PHP which lead me to look at Linux based Web servers in more depth. All the various Linux based web servers have their pros and cons but going with Ubuntu or Red Hat as your particular flavour and then using Nginx (Apache if you can’t use this) and the various PHP caching systems like XCache make Windows Server and IIS look very slow, inefficient, bloated and tired. Finally we get onto the latest trend in web servers and their OS – VPS based systems which allow you to have your own self contained chunk of a server to act and control effectively like your own dedicated server at a fraction of the price. Microsoft based Operating Systems are again being left behind in this modern technological revolution as all the leading web hosting companies if they are honest with you will tell you, Windows Server is simply not ready for prime time, reliable VPS based hosting unlike the free Linux based VPS solutions. These Linxu based VPS servers are put simply reducing web site owner’s costs AND also allowing instant scalbibily in temrs of badnwidth, ram, CPU cycles at a touch of a web admin panel and again we will likely not be going near another Windows Server based server again unless we have to 100% support ASP.
MS Office which is £200+ here in the UK is simply not worth that as Open Office is so good at dealing with your Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents and FREE that again I can’t see once people try it why they would go the paid Microsoft route again. Email used to be one of the main reasons people stumped up the cash to get the full Office email software but this can now be dealt with either by the impressive and also free Mozilla Thunderbird or if you have faith in ‘the cloud’ Gmail is by all accounts is great. Does anyone really care what Office 2010 will do? I am convinced it will be an incremental upgrade not a revolution and will again be effectively the same product as Office 97 which WAS good for it’s time but is simply dated today.
Mobile (Cell) Phone Operating Systems
Having started back with the Windows based PDAs then moved on to the latest Windows Mobile based smart phones nothing has fundamentally changed with the Windows Mobile OS since the first Pocket PC devices back in 2002. Yes there have been new features stuck on top but fundamentally you could be given a PDA with Pocket PC on from 2002 and a Windows Mobile 6.1 phone from 2009 and you would essentially be looking at the same thing. That folks, is now 8 years of incremental updates whilst the World has moved on, worked together on open source based systems and there has been genuine innovation via software companies like Google, Apple and hardware manufacturers like HTC and Motorola. The iPhone was released in 2007 – nearly 3 years ago now and it is only now just been resoundingly bettered by the Google Android powered HTC Desire which by the way, having just purchased myself prompted me to write this post as there is simply nothing based on Windows Mobile that comes remotely close to it.
The only reason I have personally persevered until now with Windows Mobile is the amazing work the Windows Mobile Communities like XDA Developers do creating custom ROMS and software you can add and flash to your Windows Mobile based devices to sit on top and mask the awful underlying Windows Mobile OS.
What about Windows Phone 7 you say?
Well to me and many other’s it looks like an Apple rip off, has less functionality than Windows Mobile (no cut and paste!), is locked down to such an extent that there will simply be no development community and will be released in 6 months+ when the world and their dog have got used to Android or Apple based smart phones. I honesty think Windows Phone 7 will be one of the most embarrassing and irrelevant product launches in tech history.
So the future…
The future might have been looking slightly better if projects like the genuinely interesting and innovative Courier Tablet hadn’t been cancelled, Bing was actually doing well in it’s own right not because it isn’t set as the default search engine on Windows machines and Microsoft had a decent strategy in the era of smartphones and innovation taking place monthly or yearly at worst, not every 5 years or more like Microsoft seem to be able to deal with. Microsoft have rested on their past glories for too long and when people look back on 2010 I think they will say this year was the year that cemented their epitaph as a previous generation big time tech company who couldn’t innovate and react quickly enough to their smaller, smarter and predominantly open source rivals.