eWEEK at 30: Microsoft Shapes PC Standard, but Stumbles in Post-PC World

By Pedro Hernandez  |  Posted 2014-01-31 Print this article Print

While fast and powerful, Vista failed to get enterprises to upgrade or consumers to switch in large numbers. A lag in support for the operating system's driver model made adopting Vista a dodgy proposition for customers worried about backward compatibility for business applications, while incessant security dialogs soured the experience for many users.

Microsoft made it up to the Windows faithful with the launch of Windows 7 in 2009. An optimized and reworked version of Vista, Windows 7 emerged as another success story that attracted both consumers and enterprises, generating strong sales after its release.

There was no such luck with Windows 8, however. (Sense a pattern yet?) After a splashy debut, Microsoft's attempt to bridge the worlds of desktop computing and mobile tablets amid plummeting PC sales failed to excite, much less get businesses to bite. While innovative in many regards, the touch-enabled UI was a lost on users whose systems that lacked touch-screens.

Windows RT, its ARM-compliant counterpart developed mainly for its Surface tablet, was met with muted demand, due, in part, to its incompatibility with Windows' massive x86-based software library. Surface, which was Microsoft's stab at catching up with Apple's massively successful iPad, fell short, at least initially. Already, industry watchers are expecting Windows 9 (code-named Threshold) to set Microsoft on a better course.

Steve Ballmer is set to retire in 2014, as soon as a replacement CEO is found by the company's board. Although he presided over some big successes, Ballmer never could quite step outside of Bill Gates' shadow during his 13-year tenure.

Gates, the company's first CEO and co-founder, remained influential long after he handed the reins over to Ballmer in 2000. He remained as chief software architect until 2006 and still serves as chairman. Ballmer would discover that a complete changing of the guard, sometimes necessary when faced with new and unforeseen challenges, is tough to accomplish when the past clings so tightly to the present.

As one of the leading figures in the development of the personal computers that helped democratize computing, Gates' image as a legend loomed large over Microsoft, and in many respects still does as the company nears the 40th year since its founding. But it grew so rich and powerful selling software for the enterprise PC market that the company reacted slowly to the profound market changes brought about by cloud computing and mobile devices.

Currently, Microsoft is searching for a new CEO that with the vision and management experience to follow through with its reorganization effort aimed at creating a devices and services company that operates as a tightly aligned "One Microsoft." The search has yet to yield a new CEO amid worries that Ballmer and Gates will meddle, proof that old legends die hard.

The challenge for the next CEO is to honor Microsoft's past but not be shackled to it. As the industry moves ahead on the cloud, mobile, big data, wearable computers, the Internet of things and other innovations, Microsoft needs a leader that can navigate the so-called post-PC future.

But that's a worry for another day. As Ballmer prepares to say his final good-byes, he leaves behind a company that can still book record sales and add billions in quarterly profits to its coffers. The question remains whether Microsoft can use this massive war chest to reinvent the company so it can meet the demands of a rapidly changing market to win a chance to endure for another 40 years.



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