You can see the changes when you walk down the departure gates at the airport. The Apple logos are everywhere. At the recharging stations, at least half of the notebook computers are MacBooks. And if you can see everyone's phones, you'll notice this: Most iPhone users have a Mac. Every Mac user has an iPhone. Those who have neither probably have an iPad.
The PC era is not dead any more than the refrigerator era is dead. But as long as it does not mean anything to proudly display a Windows logo, Windows itself is endangered.
It has already happened: Apple has captured the hearts and minds of the technology-using public, even those who don't actually own Apple products. It does not mean anything to own a Windows PC. If you wear that fact on your sleeve or on your T-shirt - "I'm a PC" - you may as well be hoisting a cardboard sign that reads, "I'm a refrigerator." But it does mean something for these people to show their Apple logo. It's the reason why shell cases for iPhones have holes in the back, and those for Android phones don't.
For the last five years, Microsoft's marketing has deluded itself into thinking it hit upon a fundamental truth, one that will carry Windows into its next decade. It's a phrase you hear repeated like a commandment, especially during Microsoft conventions like the one coming up this week, Build 2011 in Anaheim: "It's about the experience."
It is not about the experience. It has never been about the experience. If it were, iTunes users would have no trouble with Windows - the difference between iTunes there and on a Mac is not that significant. Apple has hit upon an ideal, and that ideal is now the Apple platform - much more so than the underlying technology. If Apple produced a refrigerator tomorrow, there's a good chance people would buy it whether it ran iTunes or not.
The operating system no longer matters. What folks do with their computers, their tablets, their smartphones, and to an increasing extent their digital TVs, isn't anything they would describe as enjoying their operating system. As long as Windows continues to be defined as an operating system, the Windows brand will not matter. What's even more dangerous is that the concept of Windows is becoming a relic, a piece of our past, like TV dinners, Ed Sullivan, and MySpace.
To bring Windows back into the forefront - which can be done, while there's still time - Microsoft must be willing to poke the reset button on its entire philosophy.
Microsoft built its current, towering empire on leverage - using the strengths of one platform as an anchor for the others. It's why people have Windows (because they want to run Office), why businesses have Exchange (because their employees use Office), why those businesses deploy Windows Server (because they need Exchange), and why those servers run SharePoint (because they also run Exchange and Outlook). The multitude of cross-dependencies and interrelationships between products and platforms has made the structure of Microsoft into a massive Jenga puzzle. It must rebuild, yet it runs the risk of toppling the entire contraption onto itself if it cannot stabilize the core.
The core is need. In the wake of enticing online consumer services, interesting phone apps, cloud-based applications, virtualized desktops delivered to tablets, and data storage that reaches individuals wherever they happen to be, people are seriously questioning the need for Windows. You cannot respond to this question with an experience. You experience a roller coaster, but you don't need it.
What's more, no one funds an experience. Not that Microsoft needs money all that desperately, but anyone looking to build on the Windows platform - the so-called ecosystem - does. Look at all the startups that take root in Silicon Valley, in the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere - all of them, especially the ones that make Om Malik excited. Most have names like comic book sound effects (DormDorm, Zerply, Vvall, Splunk, DimDim), and some even have business models. None of them are about Windows. In fact, the air and ambiance of Windows are the kiss of death. Imagine a startup today whose goal is "the next great Windows app." Even calling it "software" speaks to an era that feels antiquated.
What generates attention, what gets people excited, what gets financial backers interested is the degree to which new technology concepts play to an ideal. Whether or not their underlying ideas make sense, they must inspire some sense of anticipation, of wonderment, of belief. To develop something for Windows must mean something, which means Windows itself must mean something besides a source of revenue for Microsoft.
This can happen. Microsoft can do this. But its tactics must be big, bold, and swift. There can be no interim releases, no bridge versions, no halfway points. It's all or nothing. Here is what must happen:
1. The Windows brand must separate itself from the operating system. To own Windows, to be part of Windows, must have meaning and must have value. The problem with the Three Screens and a Cloud campaign that rolled out in 2009 is that it gave consumers nothing to believe in. "I have Windows on my PC, and ooh, lookie, I have it on my TV," doesn't mean anything. The fact that the different Windows platforms had certain visual similarities, was almost meaningless in the public mind. And the fact that Windows Phone 7 looked nothing like Windows 7, meant even less. People perceive a greater connection between their iOS devices and their Mac OS devices, than between Windows Server, Windows 7, Windows Phone 7, and Windows Embedded. And those two Apple platforms don't even share code.
2. Windows needs to become a consumer brand only. This does not mean Windows Server should cease to exist, or that it should even change or use a different kernel. It's that the two messages that Microsoft must deliver to two different customer bases - the consumer and the enterprise - are incompatible and should be separated. The concept of what Windows is must be as immediate, encapsulated, and definitive as what iPhone is. And the concept of what Windows Server should become should be as direct, believable, and obtainable as what Linux provides.
3. Windows must stop being "inside" and come "outside." Consumers care about ideals they can grasp and hold in their minds. They must touch it and be in touch with it. If it's "inside," they can't reach it. In the public conscience, the Desktop is the place where their daily lives, their workloads, their connections, their documents, their music, their photos, their livelihood exist on a digital level. This is what Windows must be: the entire digital level. People don't perceive the software that runs on a processor and that's cached in DRAM and paged out to the virtual page file of their hard drive. They do perceive and appreciate applications and tools and functions and everything within their field of vision. Windows should be the part of computing and communicating that they have contact with, and that contacts them.
4. Windows should stop being what people have and become what people get. Not "get" like an acquisition, but like a channel, a transmission that they're picking up. That channel must be portable, so that whatever device they touch that gets Windows, gets their Desktop. "I see you have a smartphone... Does it get Windows? Can I borrow it?" In place of "smartphone," insert "digital TV." "Tablet." "Netbook." "Kiosk." "Wristwatch." When they go to a device that gets Windows, their Desktop - their livelihood - appears there. Maybe it scales down; maybe it scales up. But the connection is made.
5. There is one screen. The only screen that matters is the one where the user sees her Desktop. And that screen can and should be anywhere, on anything that gets Windows. Not three screens and a cloud. The idea that Windows should subdivide itself into different sizes makes no sense; to the consumer, it's like changing Cheerios for different-sized boxes. Wherever you go, whatever you touch that gets Windows... there you are. You do not get bigger or smaller depending on the device you're using at the time. If your digital livelihood is you, then your apps need to scale up or down for your display size or your inputs, but your basic Desktop should be the same. Not look the same - be the same.
6. The bifurcation and enumeration of the Windows brand must end here, now. No more Windows Live, but Windows. After Windows 8, no 9, 10, Me, You, or Professional Plus 2024. No more Windows Azure. No more Windows Phone. When Microsoft makes Windows with different sizes and different ages, it disconnects the product from now. All of these different platforms may still exist - an apps platform in the cloud, a connectivity platform for the phone, a storage platform that's online. But these product boundaries are about as interesting to the consumer as the Microsoft corporate org chart. When they move from the big-screen PC to the little-screen tablet, what they do doesn't change. So Windows shouldn't change.
7. Windows should be a service, licensed on the consumer's terms, regardless of device. If you get Windows, you should get access to your Desktop from any device - not a subset, not PCs only, not forsaking phones. Wherever you go, there you are. It may have service tiers, the way folks subscribe to premium cable channels. Do you get Office? Do you get SharePoint? Exchange? Lync? Does your business get certain apps for you, like Dynamics? The consumer should have the ability to subscribe to the level and breadth of service she needs, monthly or annually or for full-price.
8. (This will be the hardest one.) If a device can get Windows, it should. In other words, its license should be per user, not per processor. Imagine this question: Can that Macintosh get Windows? Let's face it, what Mac user doesn't use Parallels? If that Mac can get Windows, then why not make it official? How about that Android phone. Don't think for a minute that a small Linux device can't run a virtual machine. This step may also be phrased like this: Windows should stop being something that is installed. It should become something that is received. If it's not a processor that's native to Windows, then can that processor run a VM, and can it connect? If so, that's good enough.
9. Make media part of the deal. If a user has downloaded music or movies and it's accessible to her from her hard drive or from her space in the cloud, then it should also be accessible to her wherever else she can get Windows. It's her stuff. If it means streaming it from her PC, or streaming it from her cloud space, or some of both, Windows should facilitate this.
10. Synchronize everything. Wherever someone uses Windows, her browser should have the same bookmarks and, as much as possible, the same add-ons. The gadgets on her phone and her PC should be the same, unless she designates otherwise. Her appointments in Outlook should be accessible through every other device that gets Windows. If she's reminded herself to put out the trash on Thursday nights, that reminder should come up on her digital TV. This should not be so hard.
A century ago, the technology that liberated Americans the way it appears bandwidth is liberating them today, was refrigeration. As ridiculous as it seems in retrospect, there was a brief period in the 1920s, just before the Depression hit, where "I own a refrigerator" meant something. You did not need the ice man. You weren't worried about the drippings from the ice box ruining your wooden floors or causing creaks as you walked into the kitchen. You could eat meat and not fear death.
The first great electric refrigerators bore big, bright, chrome-covered logos: GE, Frigidaire, Kelvinator. They changed Americans' diets. What we today call "lunch meat" had been something you'd find only in a delicatessen - a word meaning, "place for delicacies." Jell-O revolutionized families' lives. If you had electricity and could boil water, you could make dessert. You could have dessert. The very first singing radio commercials ("J-E-L-L-O-o-o-oh!") accompanied the nation's top radio program for over a decade, and kids who didn't know the National Anthem sang it at school.
Kids whose lunch boxes contained salami sandwiches with cheese and mayonnaise, had parents who had known and survived starvation. They had migrated as kids across the country in Conestoga wagons, and had lost siblings and parents to hunger and disease. For them, the refrigerator was the very symbol of liberation, of America itself. It spoke to the American ideal that those who worked hard could earn a living that was worth living. It meant for them more than connectivity means for us.
It was never about the experience. It is about the ideal. That ideal is just as much about the world we leave behind, as the one we are forging for our children.
The next few years will determine whether Windows becomes part of the world we leave behind, or the one we enter going forward. Windows' progress on that front was spelled out most eloquently last night here in Anaheim, by a fellow I met at a local sports bar whom I told about the purpose of next week's upcoming conference.
"Windows?" he said. "Yea, that's still around, isn't it?"