Windows Vista, 7, and Singularity: The New Copland, Gershwin, Taligent
April 22nd, 2008
Daniel Eran Dilger
Microsoft’s current and future operating system projects, Windows Vista, Windows Seven, and Singularity, share too much in common with Apple’s failures of the mid-90s. Each project bears a striking resemblance to the three catastrophes that nearly killed Apple in the early 90s, and for many of the same core reasons. Here’s why, and what this means for the future of the PC desktop, the Windows platform, and new emerging mobile markets.
Mac OS 8 Copland = Windows Vista.
The old Apple canceled its Mac OS Copland project in 1996 after recognizing that it was too big and had too many problems. Ten years later, Microsoft simply kept working on its Longhorn boondoggle and eventually shipped it as Vista.
While the old Apple cut its losses and quickly moved to identify a backup plan, Microsoft has dug deeper into failure by assuming that Vista could be sold automatically even if it wasn’t a good product, simply because of Microsoft’s Windows monopoly position. That turned out to be a grave mistake.
The main problem for Apple’s Copland was the threat of Windows 95; Apple’s new Mac OS couldn’t just show up, it had to compete. Similarly, the main problem for Vista was the reality of Mac OS X Tiger, and then of Leopard. Vista was repeatedly compared to Mac OS X, and not favorably. Without Apple, Microsoft’s efforts with Vista might have seemed sufficient. Instead, a year after shipping Vista the company is still struggling to find interest in it. Microsoft is discovering that competing in a real market is far harder than simply coasting in monopoly mode.
Pretend Nothing’s Wrong.
The only thing worse than making a mistake is failing to recognize that a mistake was made. Microsoft’s mix of desperation and its failure to grasp reality are reflected in the internal sales video that employed dancers jumping to celebrate a supposedly successful launch of Vista among consumers last year, something that in reality never happened.
It then depicted white men in suits suddenly getting excited about Vista in business sales because of the release of SP1, a collection of bug fixes hailed over the past year to be the savior of Vista but which really offers nothing to mitigate its sluggish performance and compatibility problems that are actually keeping enterprise users from adopting it.
In comparison, Windows XP wasn’t really ready for serious adoption until SP2, which was released in August 2004, three years after the original appearance of XP in October 2001. Vista users can’t expect things to improve until another service pack is offered in another year or two. By that time, Apple will be shipping its next reference release of Mac OS X, Apple’s hardware sales growth will have continued to far outpace those of generic PCs dependent upon Windows, and other alternatives to Windows for PC users will have developed by another year or two as well.
As unintentionally detailed in a report by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Apple has already been able to significantly outpace Microsoft’s development schedule in both the release of maintenance patches as well as in major reference releases and updates.
Asleep at the Wheel.
Microsoft’s dependance upon a competition-free, monopolized market has lulled it to sleep while its customers have suffered under a rash of malware and viruses as Microsoft has raised the price of Windows. Only after its customers grew angry about their security-related damages and started looking at alternatives did the company take any action.
Microsoft’s initial reaction was to work hard to improve Vista’s external security. The problem is that Windows’ malware problems aren’t solely related to the platform’s security flaws; Microsoft itself has pursued a corporate strategy of developing and bundling adware, spyware, license policing, and other objectionable tactics that in effect punish customers for not leaving. It’s therefore no wonder why people are switching whenever they can. As the barriers to switching are removed, that migration will only speed up.
Imagine if Apple had simply plowed more money into shipping Copland in 1997: it might never have recognized the importance of digging out of its legacy trap and starting over with new technology. That’s exactly the problem Microsoft is now deeply invested in with Vista. The company lacks any opportunity to a pursue an alternative backup plan and is now wedded to a boondoggle for the next several years. It doesn’t help that the company is only making things worse by pursuing adware, spyware, and DRM activation measures that irritate users.
Mac OS 9 Gershwin = Windows 7.
Back at the cancelation of Copland, Apple revealed that the plans for the next new Mac OS, code named Gershwin, were completely vapor and that nobody who had ever done any work on it could even be identified. Microsoft played the same game with Blackcomb, which was supposed to closely follow Whistler (Windows XP), and then Longhorn in 2004. As 2006 rolled around, the still unreleased Longhorn turned into Vista and Blackcomb was renamed Vienna. More recently, it has been renamed Windows 7.
Windows Enthusiast love to prattle on about how Windows 7 will solve all of Microsoft’s legacy issues by introducing a hypervisor or an optimized “MinWin” kernel and a compatibility virtual machine that works something like Mac OS X’s Carbon or perhaps the Classic environment, but the reality is that even Microsoft has little idea of what Windows 7 will deliver. Last year, Microsoft’s Ben Fathi said, “We’re going to look at a fundamental piece of enabling technology. Maybe it’s hypervisors. I don’t know what it is” [...] “Maybe it’s a new user interface paradigm for consumers.” Apple had a better idea of what Gershwin was supposed to accomplish in 1994.
Microsoft has always focused attention on its plans two to three years out, because it is far easier to hype up vaporous intentions than to put positive spin on the less than exceptional products it was currently shipping. The most infamous example was Cairo, which served as the company’s ghostly mascot throughout much of the 90s and essentially reappeared to haunt the media during the following decade as Longhorn. However, the company can’t say much about Windows 7, due three years from now, because today’s Windows 6 (Vista) is still struggling for attention and facing serious problems of its own.
What About Bob Vista?
Vista was supposed to create a whirlwind of wowing excitement. Instead, PC manufacturers have demanded the ability to continue selling Windows 5.1 (XP), and consumers have expressed little enthusiasm for giving up PC performance simply to buy into Microsoft’s latest release. Microsoft’s OS development efforts are simply a mess, just as it’s facing the most competition it ever has on the PC desktop. While tempted to flog the imaginary potential of Windows 7, Microsoft desperately needs to shake some attention out of Vista right now.
Windows 7 would have a tough struggle if it were ready for release today. Microsoft’s credibility in terms of shipping a functional, salable operating system is in the toilet. But the successor to Vista won’t ship for another three years, a very long time in the tech industry. Three years ago, Apple was selling Power PC computers, the iPod looked like it was running out of steam, and the company had only half as many retail stores as the present. Three years from now, it appears Apple will be sitting on a massive installed base of mobile WiFi iPods and iPhones and a retail presence that is more than 150% larger than today. Additionally, Linux will also experience three years of advancement.
Ironically, the more Microsoft changes Windows to make it competitive against Mac OS X, Linux, and other alternatives, the less attractive Windows will be to the core Windows Enthusiast crowd that wants to bask in backwards compatibility. That’s the precise problem Apple faced in migrating classic Mac OS users toward Copland or Pink: its customers wanted a better old product, not an entirely new one.
Apple could later excise its legacy cruft in the move to Mac OS X because at that point, active developers had only minimal investment in old technologies and NeXT offered a ready infusion of compelling new development tools. Microsoft must string along support for old Win32 applications and proprietary, security challenged features built into products such as Internet Explorer; if it doesn’t, it can’t offer any advantages over the cheaper alternatives that already exist.
Windows 95 and Vista: Why 2007 Won’t Be Like 1995
Taligent = Singularity.
Back during Apple’s OS crisis, the slow progress of Copland was initially considered to be less of critical problem because Apple was also working with IBM to develop Pink and Taligent, which were bandied about as the next thing that would someday solve all of the Mac’s foreseeable problems. Microsoft’s modern day version of this mythical white knight is Singularity, a research project that has little to do with Windows and will not solve the problems of users who need Windows.
Singularity is an experimental effort to build an operating system in Microsoft’s C# language for research purposes. It boots on legacy PCs using the early 80s BIOS architecture. While it introduces some novel ideas about how to build a microkernel, Microsoft’s real problems in Windows don’t revolve around major deficiencies in the NT Kernel used in WinNT/2000/XP/Vista, but rather the problematic pile of junk that supports the sprawling Win32 API. Nothing in Singularity addresses that at all.
What people quickly forget is that the only reason why anyone uses Windows is because it runs ubiquitous Win32 legacy applications. As Unix and Linux gain the ability to do this using libraries such as WINE, there will be little allure to pay for using Windows at all, or any OS from Microsoft. A new OS from Microsoft that doesn’t run Win32 will have no advantage over Linux or Mac OS X, which already has mature frameworks for building modern apps, nor any advantage over alternative enterprise development platforms such as Sun’s Java EE and open web services development.
Why spin Win32 apps into a compatibility mode of a future, cleaned up and modernized version of a Microsoft operating system when one can already do that today on top of Mac OS X or Linux and skip paying Microsoft for all those licensing fees? Microsoft is now grappling with that question itself.
Microsoft exists to maintain its monopoly position. Suggesting that Windows 7 or Singularity will help solve problems that Vista has been unable to is akin to saying that future generations of a monarch will solve the despotism of the current king. Why not just depose the king now and set up a representative government that isn’t designed around the whims of an incompetent tyrant or his unproven offspring?
Bill Gate’s Worthless Legacy.
At its most beleaguered, Apple at least had a legacy of brilliant industrial design, intuitive user interface contributions, and forward thinking software offerings from the pioneering Quicktime architecture to the innovative handwritten recognition and data soups of the Newton. Microsoft’s legacy has been poorly architected security, performance eating spaghetti code bloat, a bastardized and inconsistent user interface, and a series of vaporware initiatives intended to hold back competition and rein in any progress in the state of the art.
Unlike the old Apple, Microsoft lacks an estranged leader like Steve Jobs and a parallel wing of development like NeXT to remerge with in order to revitalize its future. Microsoft didn’t spin Bill Gates off into a decade long skunkworks project that produced incredible technology that can now be purchased for a song. Gates stuck around and wasted billions of dollars annually chasing after a myopic vision of Tablet PCs, SPOT watches, and a flurry of other failed products that the company could not successfully develop and market.
But more importantly, Microsoft lacks any need to exist. As a brand, the company has established itself as a huge meaningless nothing. At its core ideology and corporate identity, Microsoft symbolizes not a faltering greatness in technology as the old Apple did, but a tumbling monstrosity of conniving, greedy, short sighted megalomania. Microsoft never aspired to deliver great products; it only ever sought to destroy competitors and spread its brand name.
Why Would You Buy That?
This desperate greed is reflected in its glassy eyed advertisements for Vista that presented users as being wowed by its veneer rather than actually being able to use it. It’s also reflected in the insane fist pumping of its CEO chanting for developers, developers, developers while the company has repeatedly and intentionally steamrolled its own development partners. It’s also obvious in the internal videos that present Vista simply as a box people need to be sold.
In contrast, the new Apple presents ads showing why users might actually want to buy its products, including demonstrations of the iPhone’s interface. You’d never see Microsoft advertising the clunky interface of Windows Mobile. Further, each reference release of Mac OS X has been defined by major features first, then “hundreds” of other significant features, and subtle interface refinements afterward. Windows releases have historically all been hype surrounding the name and associated logo, vague promises about being the best ever, and prominent but mostly gimmicky interface overhauls that principally served to sell a new edition of Office along with it.
If Apple made bad products, it wouldn’t be able to sell them. Microsoft has made a series of truly awful products such as Windows ME, yet was able to extract huge sums of money from them because consumers and business users had no alternative choices available to them. The rapid uptake in Mac sales and in iPhones compared to the flat demand for Windows PCs and Windows Mobile smartphones indicates that Microsoft is ill prepared to compete in the real, functional markets it now finds itself in.
The Market Corrects.
Microsoft hasn’t ever had to compete in a fair market. It got rich shoehorning its DOS licensing into IBM’s PC sales, then pushed Windows licenses through OEM IBM clone sales, then systematically displaced its third party Windows developers by introducing its own Office applications, development tools, terminal services, web browser, media software, and antivirus tools. The PC market is now a fully monopolized platform owned by Microsoft.
Societies work when markets allow groups to specialize in specific areas of expertise and then work together to form mutually beneficial partnerships. Microsoft has converted the PC market into a dictatorial commune, and expands its control by eating up partners, harvesting their technology, and spitting them out as chaff. Microsoft’s poor treatment of its partners has resulted in an industry that views Microsoft as a dangerous enemy.
Apple has historically focused on what it could do best: develop hardware. It partnered early on with Microsoft, only to discover the company had no ethics, no desire to build anything mutually beneficial, and saw no real core competencies to focus on. Microsoft simply wanted to control everything, but was not very good at actually doing so. After a lengthy reign of terror marked by shoddy engineering, ugly interface designs, and greedy business models, Microsoft is now surrounded by companies that only want to remove it from power.
SCO, Linux, and Microsoft in the History of OS: 1970s
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SCO, Linux, and Microsoft in the History of OS: 2000s
Swimming Against Fitter Competitors.
The lucky current that happened to bring Microsoft to the top has left it sitting in place above the stagnant desktop PC market. The company has proven itself incapable of expanding into new arenas or replicating its PC OS fortune. It will have to idly watch as its monopoly position is eroded and as swifter competitors expand into the markets it has been unable to develop, including smartphones and mobile Internet devices.
Apple is well situated to expand with those markets because it has developed fundamentally better products and assembled partners that contribute towards its success, including automakers and airlines, studios and labels, Nike and the iPod hardware makers, mobile service operators, and now a series of game and software developers for the iPhone.
Apple now has the critical mass pushing economies of scale that Microsoft enjoyed as a DOS supplier to IBM’s early PC, but today’s Apple is like Microsoft and IBM put together. That gives the company advantages that Microsoft’s software-only approach can’t match. Apple also has hardware experience and expertise that Microsoft can’t duplicate just by throwing its money around, as evidenced by the fantastic losses related to its every attempt at custom engineered hardware.
Apple’s partnerships with Intel give it access to the cream of technology in desktop systems, and its iPod-centric volume purchasing from component vendors such as Samsung give it incredible market power in the Flash RAM arena. Microsoft has already played its hand in mobile devices, and every attempt has been a spectacular failure, from Windows Mobile to PlaysForSure to Zune.
Microsoft’s sole attraction for developers has been its large, monopolized PC platform. However, the tantalizing allure of that large market has been contaminated by Microsoft’s own pillaging of its development partners, its failure to take reasonable precautions to ensure the computing safety of its customers, and the widespread piracy among Windows’ less sophisticated users. Developers have long realized that targeting the Mac platform results in returns far greater than its 5% worldwide penetration would suggest.
10 FAS: 7 – Apple’s Hardware and Dvorak’s Microsoft Branded PC
The Spectacular Failure of WinCE and Windows Mobile
Video Game Consoles 2007: Wii, PS3 and the Death of Microsoft’s Xbox 360
Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing
The Puck Is Mobile.
As growth in the conventional desktop PC market slows, developers are eying mobile devices, a category Microsoft has failed to monopolize or to even successfully compete in. Apple is currently offering the prospect of a safer platform that is more profitable for third party developers and makes it easier for them to reach potential customers. Microsoft is again scrambling to catch up with the iPhone, just as it has tried for years to copy the success of the iPod.
In mobile devices, Microsoft also faces entrenched rivals including Nokia, and the threat of free software alternatives, including Google’s Android offerings. Microsoft’s monopolized PC platform is beginning to look irrelevant, and its monopoly business model isn’t something the company has been able to duplicate elsewhere.
From its mid 90s attempts to spread “Windows Everywhere” from Pen Computing to Tablets to copiers and office equipment, to today’s efforts to get WinCE or XP/Vista running on UMPCs, phone tablets, and touch sensitive tubs, Microsoft has never been able to successfully expand its range significantly outside the PC market, which is now slowing to a crawl.
Even the company’s satellite buffer of lauding pundits is drying up, making it more difficult for Microsoft to maintain its influence via misinformation campaigns. The tech media in general is still loath to seriously criticize Microsoft’s actions or dispute its future relevance, but as its ad budget and public perception wanes, so will its coverage. Not even Apple could escape the fangs of the media once its fortunes turned. The difference is that a number of influential people wanted to save the remains of Apple in 1997. Nobody really feels the same about today’s Microsoft.
As the company fiddles while Windows burns, the PC market will give rise to an explosion of mobile devices, few of which will be running Windows. And as for Windows itself: somewhat ironically, as it moves to divorce itself from its own insecure, sloppy legacy, it increasingly won’t matter, because Windows’ core problems are actually the primary features supporting its sales. That’s like having a skeleton made of cancer cells; you can spend a lot of money on surgery, but there’s no solution that makes any sense.
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