On Microsoft: is the sky falling? Remember Netware?

The top story on Guardian Technology right now is a rumour about Google getting rid of Windows. Apparently Google prefers its employees to use Mac or Linux.

Why is this interesting? I suspect because the world is now looking for evidence that Microsoft is failing. Microsoft failing in mobile is one thing, but to fail in its heartland of desktop operating systems is even more interesting. Presuming that Google itself has “gone Google”, it is also a reminder that once you free your organisation from Office and Outlook and Exchange, it also enables you to shift from Windows on the desktop. A side-effect of cloud is choice of local operating system.

Most businesses still run Windows as far as I can tell. Microsoft’s platform is also very broad. I had a discussion with the Windows Embedded team recently about point-of-service and digital signage; interesting stuff, and invisible to most of us.

So the sky is not falling yet. Nevertheless, if these is a public perception that Microsoft is failing to keep pace with new models of computing, that in itself is a serious problem.

I have not forgotten the Novell story. Back in the nineties, everyone knew that Windows NT was supplanting Novell’s Netware. At the same time, everyone knew that Netware was in most respects superior to Windows NT: the directory was more advanced, maintenance was easier, reliability was better. Here’s a blog from 1999 by Nick Holland explaining why:

The general industry perception is that Novell is a "has-been".  Microsoft Windows NT is where everyone is going.

I often get people asking me if they should switch to NT, and I ask them why they think they should.  The answer: "Well, isn’t everyone else?"  The reply: 1) No, they aren’t.  2) even if they were, how does that mandate that you should?

Holland goes on to note that Netware is still more widely used than Windows, and explain in detail why he prefers to install and support Netware. He was a Netware guy defending his choice; but reading his rant a decade later there’s not much to disagree with in his technical assessment.

So why did Windows NT win in the market, against an entrenched and superior alternative? There were several factors. Windows had already won on the client, and Microsoft ensured that it integrated best with its own directory and servers. Second, executives liked the idea of using the same platform on both client and server; support would not be able to blame the other guy. Third, once the perception that everyone was switching to Windows NT took hold, it became self-fulfilling. In the end, that perception may have been the most significant thing.

Today, perception is working against Microsoft. Windows mobile is a shrinking platform. Internet Explorer is losing market share. Microsoft has had the embarrassment of working for years on Tablet PC and Origami (ultra mobile PC), only to have Apple beat it easily with the iPad, its first product launch in that market.

Microsoft’s Brandon LeBlanc takes the Financial Times to task for saying:

Windows is known for being more vulnerable to attacks by hackers and more susceptible to computer viruses than other operating systems.

I don’t doubt the effort Microsoft has made over security for a number of years now, and LeBlanc makes some fair points. Nevertheless, I suspect the general reader will agree with what the FT says. They are more likely to have suffered from malware on a Windows machine, or to have friends that have suffered, than with a Mac or Linux (if they know anyone running Linux). That counts for more than any amount of spin about security enhancements in Windows.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs says, as summarised by Ina Fried:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farms. Cars became more popular as cities rose, and things like power steering and automatic transmission became popular. PCs are going to be like trucks. They are still going to be around…they are going to be one out of x people. This transformation is going to make some people uneasy…because the PC has taken us a long ways. It’s brilliant. We like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen, it’s uncomfortable.

Jobs is right, though he is focused on the device. He is not an internet guy, and that is a weakness, as John Battelle describes in this iPad post. You can debate whether the future tips more towards Apple or Google. Neither scenario is any comfort to Microsoft.

The sky is not falling yet. Microsoft’s platform is still an important one. Follow the trends though, and they all seem to point to a lesser role for the company in the coming decade than in the last one. Windows 7 surprised us with its quality. We need a few more surprises of equal or greater significance before that perception will change.

One thought on “On Microsoft: is the sky falling? Remember Netware?”

  1. Hi Tim,

    I understand what you are saying. I too could not believe the demise of Netware in such a short time at the hands of an obviously inferior product.

    However, until the non-Microsoft camp can produce the tools that make developing non-Microsoft business apps as easy as Visual Studio does, then business will stick with Windows.

    Developing trivial, non-business apps for Apple, et al is relatively simple. Developing mission-critical, non-Microsoft apps with the likes of Objective C is far too difficult for the VB and C# programmers of the world to move to another platform quickly.

    My two cents worth 🙂

    Mark Chimes

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