There is a classic scene in Steve Martin's, 'The Man with Two Brains,' where Martin's character, Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr is a bit "backed up," having not consummated his marriage with his new wife, played the then-sultry Kathleen Turner. In the scene, Turner's character, Dolores, is getting Martin all hot and bothered before spontaneously shutting him down by saying, "I can't wait until NEXT Thursday."
Ah, such mental masturbation is the paradox in processing Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 8, the demo videos and written analyses (XLNT by Andy Ihnatko) of which are just starting to proliferate the web.
On the one hand, give Microsoft props. It is an original vision in an industry where everything seems mind-numbingly derivative of the latest, greatest from Apple. The concept of tiles as a UI construct, and a service abstraction layer for creating richly federated composite applications and services is compelling, if not completely new (son of OLE? sib of ActiveX? kin of OpenDoc? cousin of CORBA? neighbor of JavaBeans?).
Plus, it's not like the ascent of the Post-PC Era actually means that people have stopped buying and using personal computers. In fact, Microsoft rightly takes great pride in the fact that their most recent OS, Windows 7, has sold over 400M licenses.
And lest we forget that every platform play is a play for the hearts and minds of developers, and once upon a time, there was no one better at courting developers and making them rich than Microsoft.
Last time I checked, the IPOs of companies built on top of the iOS and Android platforms are non-existent, suggesting that while those platforms are generating a lot of apps and hordes of developer interest, the dollars are still relatively thin, a dilemma and an opportunity that I previously blogged about (SEE: 'The iPhone, the Angry Bird and the Pink Elephant').
But, here's where we splash some cold water on the hopes, promises and dreams coming out of Redmond. Number one, while it was very common for companies a decade ago to start the advance promotional tour on new software and hardware initiatives 6-12 months in advance of actually shipping a solution, the days of "trust me" are (largely) no more.
Why? Remember Microsoft Courier, the prototype tablet that pre-dated the launch of iPad? Uh, it never launched? Oh, well remember how Flash on Android and RIM's PlayBooks was going to be the achilles heel for Apple, which blocked Flash on iOS? How about how Google Buzz was going to kill Twitter, or Facebook, or someone, anyone?
The point is that concepts and prototypes, tightly managed demos and well-laminated videos are NOT products. Executing living, breathing products, given the myriad of technical, tools, distribution channel, legacy, installed base and corporate culture challenges is HARD. Really HARD.
It's why our bar of expectations is so low, despite the fact that the 'ingredients' of technology have gotten amazingly good.
It's why we celebrate the magistry of Instagram, when it's little more than today's version of Sugar Water.
It's why Apple is rightfully the most valuable technology company on the planet, and everyone else is playing horizontal checkers to their game of vertical chess.
Repeat after me. Execution is hard, and Microsoft, culturally-speaking has far more instances of screwing the pooch on new product innovation than actually delivering on new product innovation.
That stated, Windows 8 is actually closer to their core competency, and their heart of hearts than just about anything they've done over the past decade, and as such, if they even just barely credibly execute, they will be relevant again.
The tech biz is relatively stagnant for lack of a serious yang to Apple's yin. Here's hoping that Microsoft can make the game interesting.
Four quick thoughts from reading the tea leaves...
- It's IBM Redux...Sort of: I recently finshed reading 'The Design of Design' by Fred Brooks (author of 'The Mythical Man-Month'), where he chronicles the development of IBM's System/360, an effort that Brooks lead at IBM to create a scaleable architecture, OS and tools that would run on a wide-range of hardware platforms to service different verticals and price points. It was a landmark success for IBM, and is conceptually consistent with what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with WIndows 8; namely, one OS that can scale from mobile, tablets and notebooks, to desktops, servers and virtualized datacenters. The difference between then and now is that there are well-entrenched players in the segments that don't look like a PC, and Microsoft has failed constistently to find even a tiny wedge in those segments.
- It's the Microsoft Way: The story of Microsoft prior to iPod, iPhone and iPad was of a company that anticipated and orchestrated their way through the "disruption landmine," specifically by offering customers a way to preserve their investment in time, money, programming and attention. The transitions from DOS to Windows, offline to the Internet, and Desktop to the Web were all instances where a less-strategically sound company could have lost their mojo, margins and sway of influence. That all of the struggles since then have come under Steve Ballmer suggests that a Microsoft without Bill Gates is not the same lethal killer. Nonetheless, it does make sense that Microsoft would pursue a vision that is all about making devices homogeneous so as to sustain the hegemony of Windows, whereas the Apple story is all about heterogeneity, invention and embracing disruption. Is Apple right? Is Microsoft right? If you are an enterprise, Microsoft's bread and butter, you probably are pretty excited about Windows 8, having seen how Windows 7 rescued you from Vista. More to the point, the duality of 400M Windows 7 licenses and over 200M iOS devices suggests that, despite our best efforts to reduce everything down to the "one right way," the real world is not so black and white.
- Nothing's Free: Here, I hearken back to an axiom that a friend once told me about abstraction layers, where he noted that, "They can solve virtually all problems...except performance." His point, loosely speaking, is that every technical problem is solvable a myriad of ways, but the solution has a cost or trade-offs that can't be completely avoided. Nothing's free. As such, if Windows 8 is going to run on a myriad of devices, screen sizes, input methods and processing capabilities, the system is either going to need to be "fatter" to manage all of that complexity; OR developers are going to have to do a lot of tweaking to optimize from one device target to the next; OR, real world solutions will target a lowest common denominator to achieve the widest reach; OR developers will target a primary environment, and ignore the others. Depending on the answer, you have either a more expensive device, a tax on developers, an LCD-driven market or a bunch of fragmented niches.
- Developers are the Straw that Stirs the Drink: A core question remains what does the community of developers (iOS, Android, Windows, Web) do when Windows 8 finally materializes? Is it a non-event that drives developers to simply continue what they are already doing? Does it push a more rapid move to HTML 5 as the 'Switzerland' of all of these platforms? Is there an economic argument that makes one platform more compelling than another for developers? Mark my words. Developers make or break a platform play. Just ask RIM, Nokia and WebOS. Or, Apple and Google, for that matter.
Oh, and one more thing. It sucks to be Adobe Flash. First, kicked off iOS, then touted then irrelevant on Android and RIM, and now designed out of the new Windows 8 browser. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," in the immortal words of George W. Bush.