Thursday, July 18, 2013

Microsoft rumours of own demise not greatly exaggerated

When it defended against an antitrust suit by the FTC and 14 states in the late 1990s, Microsoft, then controlling more than 90% of the operating-system installed base, spoke of itself as if it were an ephemeral butterfly. The courts did not have to intervene because this was tech, and some better-faster-nimbler competitor could arrive at any moment and steal its lunch, it said. And it cited some marginal markets where someone was energetic enough to drive a truck through the yawning maw of the bored monolith.

Yeah, right, everybody said. At the time, MS was just downright scary. It had the desktop OS market in a stranglehold and was quite effectively encroaching on Unixoid OSes' dominance on servers and machines for serious computation. It ruled supreme in the main productivity-application segment, having driven out most real competition. It was astutely capitalising on Internet Explorer. And it was increasingly inserting itself into new-media software that seemed to hold future importance, such as streaming (recall RealNetworks’ claims that Microsoft stole and used its software, which Microsoft settled years later with a large sum). So although it didn’t enter every market, and suffered a high-profile failure, despite years of heavy spending, to produce a server for streaming television on-demand, it was clear to all that Microsoft didn’t suffocate only those whom it couldn’t be bothered to crush. And Windows was both evil and eternal, like the Soviet Union.

Then there was a bit of the-rest-is-history. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson actually tried to explain to the press his decision against MS; this was deemed unjudicial by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which eviscerated his decision. The G.W. Bush administration came to power and unsurprisingly settled on terms favourable to MS, leaving the states to twist slowly in the wind. Having triumphed, the monolith was only emboldened.

Gradually, though, the tide turned. Linux resisted and eventually turned the tide of Windows on serious servers. Smartphones were born and took years to overcome an awkward childhood; some ran Windows Mobile but others didn’t. Apple didn’t die as scheduled but rather used the last of its cash to buy the second coming of Jobs along with his strong OS engineering group, which finally (on Apple’s third attempt) gave it a proper OS. Although the slightly modified Unix-based NextStep took a long time to grow market share under the Mac OS X brand beyond Apple’s gauche and effete fans (and me), it ultimately did and was a key component in the iPhone — which turned the smartphone into an object of desire.

By 2009, Windows had a market share no longer of 95% but of 70%. However, given the flood of smartphones that this number already accommodated, one could perceive it to be a forceful assertion of Microsoft’s continued relevance and stability. Which would be bolstered by Windows 7, to be released within months, fixing much of what was wrong with the hapless Vista.

And then exactly what Microsoft predicted actually happened. In four years, Android emerged from /dev/null (nothing) and became the majority OS, with more than half the market (53% last January). iOS and Mac OS X together grew to 19%. Windows-branded OSes now control only 22%. See the top chart at http://slon.ru/appheroes/kak-vyglyadit-krakh-monopolii-microsoft-967546.xhtml?utm_source=slon&utm_medium=chartbeat&utm_campaign=trending (green is others).

Android rode in on the power of the unsatisfied market for smartphones (often any mobile phones) worldwide, coupled to their somewhat greater affordability than iPhones (I would guess that many consumers, especially outside the Golden Billion, never considered iPhones even where they were available). So Microsoft’s position now is not as shaky as it appears because it still has a large chunk of the desktop market (90% in June) and the one for lesser servers. It just didn’t benefit much from the smartphone and tablet revolution (where it has just 1%).

But that would ignore a little factor named synergy. There may have been little if any of it in the many mergers and takeovers — especially in the media world — that were peddled to shareholders on its basis in the 1990s, but it is a critical aspect of the popularity of computing devices. Microsoft leveraged the ubiquity of its key products to a tremendous extent on its way up: the operating systems — by allowing anyone to build hardware to use them, and both the OSes and Office applications — by not resisting piracy at all until recent years and halfheartedly even now. The latter forbearance is not due to technical challenges (it’s been possible to implement bulletproof but user-friendly license protection for many years) or ideology (which is to the contrary, as demonstrated by Gates’s 1976 letter to users on the consequences of piracy to innovation), but rather a way of making lemonade out of the lemons of piracy — in industrial quantities. There were so many copies of these products lying around (while WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 had user-hostile copy protection) that the product lines’ penetration grew to become the path of least resistance — to be followed even when license fees were paid. The default choice. The automatic choice you made unless you had special needs or were strange. One operating system, one productivity suite, one Reich, one F├╝hrer.

The same mechanism is in play when one swtiches one device to an OS already in use on the other, or, in the case of Apple, the brand of one device in favour of the brand on another. This is where Microsoft failed. Windows Mobile was sad, bloated, buggy and broken, and the quality of the devices so awful (a touchscreen failure is a real impediment when there is no other way to interact with the device). It became apparent to anyone who cared that riding camels through eyes of needles was not a practical means of transport. But just because MS couldn’t do it doesn’t mean others can’t.

Apple did that for itself and also for others, by insisting on a working touchscreen and by validating the very concept of a functional smartphone. Now the big winner of this trend is Android. To many, a mobile phone means a smartphone and that means Android. Which also means Android on a tablet. All that’s left is for the deadly virus to go airborne, and I would be stunned if a version for full-fledged desktops and laptops didn’t follow.

As for Windows, I don’t, for one, believe that many care now that Windows 8 might be reasonably acceptable on mobile devices. The leveraging trend is against Microsoft and would be even if the company was much better at getting functionality and usability right the first time than it actually is. I expect its market share will unwind like a yo-yo. The fact that all competitors (except the moribund Blackberry) are based on some form of Unix — the only OS in history that got more popular over a long time, because it was done right from the beginning in darkest 1968 — will only help them to leverage each other and eventually turn the lights off in Redmond even faster. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I just hope someone rescues Excel, if only out of commitment to public service. Neo/Libre/OpenOffice are Potemkin villages without so much as a Motel 6.

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