Another powerful trend that undercuts Microsoft is toward programs that look and function the same way in any operating system. “Over the past five years there’s been a steady move away from Windows-specific to applications being OS-neutral,” says Michael Silver, a software analyst at the research firm Gartner.
One example would be Adobe Flash. Such popular social applications as Facebook and Twitter are also indifferent to operating systems, offering users much the same experience no matter what personal computer or handheld device they use. Since so many people live in their social-media sites, the look and feel of these sites has become at least as important as the user interface of the OS. The effect is to shrink the role of the OS, from conductor of the orchestra to merely one of its soloists. “The traditional operating system is becoming less and less important,” says Paul Maritz, chief executive of VMware, who was once the Microsoft executive in charge of the operating system. By and large, he has noted, “people are no longer writing traditional Windows applications.”
Microsoft’s troubles make the company’s OS doubly vulnerable. Vista, its current version, has been roundly criticized, and it has never caught on as widely as the company anticipated; many Microsoft customers continue to use the previous version of Windows, XP. A new version being released this fall, Windows 7, promises to remedy the worst problems of Vista. But even 7 may not address a set of technical issues that both galvanize Microsoft’s critics and stoke the appetites of Brin and Page to create a more pleasing alternative. In their view, the Microsoft OS takes too long to boot up, and it slows down even the newest hardware. It is too prone to viral attacks and too complicated.
Exactly how Google plans to solve these problems is still something of a mystery. Technical details aren’t available. Google has said so little about the innards of its forthcoming OS that it qualifies as “a textbook example of vaporware,” wrote John Gruber on his blog Daring Fireball. Information is scarce about even such basic things as whether it will have a new user interface or rely on an existing open-source one, and whether it will support the driver that make printers and other peripherals routinely work with Windows PCs.
The mere announcement of Chrome already threatens Microsoft, however. The imminence of Google’s entry into the market–following the delivery of its Android OS for mobile phones–gives Microsoft’s corporate customers a reason to ask for lower prices. After all, Google’s OS will be free, and the buyers of Windows are chiefly PC makers, whose profit margins are already ultra-slim.
“It’s all upside for Google and no downside,” says Mitchell Kapor, a software investor and the founder of Lotus, a pioneer supplier of PC applications that was bloodied by Microsoft in the 1990s.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book on the making of Windows NT–still the foundation of Microsoft’s OS family. At the time, I wrongly concluded that developing the dominant operating system was proof of technological power, akin to building the greatest fleet of battleships in the early 20th century, or the pyramids long ago. Windows NT required hundreds of engineers, tens of millions of development dollars, and a huge marketing effort. By the mid-1990s, Microsoft was emphasizing features over function, complexity over simplicity.
In doing so, Microsoft and its cofounder, Bill Gates, seemed to be fulfilling the company’s historical destiny. The operating system as a technological showpiece goes back to OS/360, a program designed by IBM that was immortalized in The Mythical Man-Month, a book by the engineer Frederick Brooks. The historian Thomas Haigh explains, “That was a huge scaling up of ambition of what the OS was for.”
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.