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Weekly Column

It Takes a Monopoly: For reasons that have little to do with the product, itself, Windows Vista simply can't lose.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (139)
By Robert X. Cringely

Windows Vista is finally here, a shadow of what it was once supposed to be, but here nonetheless, and now the pundits are holding forth on whether or not Microsoft's new operating system will succeed. What a waste of good punditry: of course Vista will succeed, and those who think it will fail simply do not know what they are talking about.

There have been good operating systems from Microsoft and bad operating systems from Microsoft, but of those only one that I know of can truly be said to have failed -- Bob, the so-called social interface operating system I always figured was really named after me.

Bob was a functional failure, a user catastrophe, but Microsoft had weathered those before. Remember DOS 4? What might have made Bob fail was its design, which was flawed to say the least, or as my mother would put it -- crappy. But what ALLOWED Bob to fail was something much different -- the fact that the operating system wasn't strategic for Microsoft OR for users. Nobody needed Bob and nobody was forced to use him against their will, which sounds a lot like my old dating life but is actually more profound than that. Microsoft practically guaranteed that Bob would fail by creating no artificial situation (say the forced retirement of the last pre-Bob OS) that forced people to use Bob whether they wanted to or not.

Microsoft -- a company that eventually learns from its mistakes -- will not make that particular mistake again, certainly not with Windows Vista, in which they have a $5 billion investment.

What we'll see for ourselves and read about over the next six months, then, are users complaining about Vista instability, an inevitably emerging vulnerability to hackers, and applications that don't work as well as they do under XP. Enterprise customers will hold back in droves. But does any of that make Vista a failure? Nope.

Those who are trying to figure out if Vista will be successful haven't yet grasped the concept that Vista will be forced on the market, and in time it will be the only operating system you can buy from Microsoft. Of course it will be successful. Will people upgrade their existing systems? Of course not. Microsoft operating systems are always designed for future PC's, not for the installed base. Part of the plan is to make Vista work poorly on current computers so we'll all have to buy new ones. This strategy has been around for years and there is no reason to believe we won't fall for it again. Sure, some percentage of people and firms will upgrade, but most of the upgrades will come with whole new computers.

Think back to the Windows 95 introduction, where one of the selling points was that the new OS would work fine on a 66 MHz 486 computer. The truth was that it would RUN on a 486, but not well, so after a try of Win95 on our old hardware, rather than go to some other operating system we all bought new machines. And we'll do that again with Vista.

Following a trend that started with Windows 98, when consumers were hit with the double whammy of a new operating system that was hardware constrained and a new Internet culture that suddenly couldn't get enough storage or processor power, consumers will lead the Vista adoption cycle. But where home users go, corporations soon follow, because people aren't going to long tolerate work systems that are slower and less full-featured than what they have running in their kitchens.

And think about it, what's the alternative to Vista, but Windows XP? Those who don't jump to Vista right away will stick with XP, an operating system into which Microsoft will no longer be investing, making it even more profitable. So even if Microsoft loses they win. In 2007 at least, if people don't like Vista they will, for the most part, still stick with Microsoft rather than jumping to Linux or to the Mac. Maybe that will change in future years, but for 2007 at least, Microsoft's empire is secure and they know it.

More good news for Microsoft is that they have won, for now, the game console war. To be fair, though, it isn't just that Microsoft won but that Sony lost. Blu-ray laser diode shortages are constraining PS3 production just at a time when Microsoft has a shot at breaking even on the production cost of its xBox 360s, which are gaining economies of scale. But the most important win here is the hearts of game developers, and those will go to whatever platform has the greatest number of units in the field, which, for high-end game consoles, means Microsoft.

Don't get me wrong, Sony's PS3 is technically superior to Microsoft's xBox 360, but NOT SUPERIOR ENOUGH. Wooing game developers from 12-15 million xBox 360s to instead write games for a couple million PS3s would require those PS3's to be an order of magnitude better as a game platform. Just somewhat better isn't enough, so for this round, at least, Microsoft wins.

And if Microsoft wins, that means HD-DVD wins, too, leaving Blu-ray as the Betamax of HD optical drives. And like Beta, Blu-ray will probably find its (much smaller) niche in professional markets that can take advantage of its eventual greater capacity.

If Microsoft wins the next-generation game console battle, does that mean Redmond also wins the living room for its video content? That depends mainly on Apple.

There is a logical argument that we'll only have so many devices in our living rooms and one of those is likely to be a game console. Microsoft has already proved more than once that we don't want to drag a full-fledged PC into the room, even if it does a beautiful job of grabbing and storing TV shows. We may be able to sneak a PC into our stereo stack (what's an xBox 360, really, but a game-oriented PC?), but even Microsoft is losing faith that a PC frontal assault on the living room will succeed.

Apple, meanwhile, is sneaking into the room through the use of its iTV wireless video adapter box. Where is that thing, anyway? There's no way Apple won't introduce it, though apparently 2006 will be another iPod Christmas. I'd look for the iTV by MacWorld in January where Apple's 802.11n networking will suddenly be available across a huge range of Apple products.

Apple is all about convenience, and 802.11n is the first wireless standard with enough bandwidth and range to support a true no-wires religion. So we'll see video adapters like the iTV, with its built-in H.264 hardware decoder, but we'll also likely see similar audio adapters intended to link our iPods into the home, possibly with Bluetooth networking, too.

So the living room is a toss-up depending on the successful integration platform (xBox 360 or iTV) and the slate of services lined up behind each. I tend to give Apple the nod here, based partly on apparent positive momentum in the product space, but even more because of Microsoft's prediction this week that it would sell one million Zune MP3 players by the end of its fiscal year. Such a sales estimate can't be based on initial sales figures, meaning it has to be Microsoft marketing's version of a Hail Mary pass: if we predict it, maybe it will come to pass. Probably not.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (139)

"Empathy with gaming characters drops off as they come to a point were they look as if they are close to being real. Our perception of them moves from character to something more disturbing like the undead, and can be become repelled or disgusted. The dip in postive consumer attitude as the character better mimics human life is the Uncanny Valley."

Is this why I still enjoy playing my 25 year old Atari 2600 games more than my present-day Xbox-360 games?

Chris | Dec 18, 2006 | 2:05PM

Part of the plan is to make Vista work poorly on current computers so we'll all have to buy new ones.

Why? They don't sell hardware. If anything they'd want to make it perform on low end hardware so they can charge more for their OS/increase the market for Vista.

NotBlind | Dec 18, 2006 | 10:22PM

They don't sell hardware but their monopoly depends for a good part on the fact that for all practical purposes their OS is the only one you can buy preloaded. So it's a good idea for MS to be on friendly terms with manufacturers. It wouldn't be hard for, say, Dell to come up with a "Dell OS" based on Ubuntu, Suse, Xandros... They probably won't do it as long as they see MS as an ally, but that's the point.

jlb | Dec 19, 2006 | 8:17AM