When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told an audience at the Gartner Symposium / IT Expo that the company’s riskiest bet was the next version of Windows, he caused a great deal of consternation – especially since he declined to elaborate. Former chief architect Ray Ozzie, a couple of days after leaving Microsoft, added his thoughts on the challenges for Microsoft, saying that the company had to embrace the cloud as its future direction.
Ozzie and other Microsoft executives that haven’t retired are, if anything, out of touch with the bulk of the user base for Windows. Remember that something like 60 percent of computer users are still running Windows XP nearly a decade after it arrived on the scene. Despite the fact that you can’t actually buy XP any more, and despite the fact that Microsoft will stop supporting it in a couple of years, the switch hasn’t yet been made.
To assume that the world’s computer users will obediently transition to Windows 7, or later to Windows 8, is a mistake. Worse, to assume that the world is going to make a global move to the cloud, and that Windows must move with it, is worse than a mistake-it’s based on elitist assumptions about how people use their computers. Sure, you can move to the cloud if you live in highly wired Redmond, Wash. For that matter, you might be able to move to the cloud here in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
But most of the world doesn’t live in places like those and even in places where broadband access is available, it’s not necessarily affordable. The cloud is a resource only for those who can afford it, and most of the world can’t. In fact, part of the reason that so much of the world is using Windows XP is because they can’t afford the computers it takes to run anything later. When you travel through places that don’t have the wealth of the urban U.S. or Western Europe, you find that the world still connects at the pace of an analog modem, when it connects at all.
The Cloud Is Meaningless to People Tied to Analog Modems
So while Ray Ozzie may think that the future is cloud-based services and appliance-like devices, he’s clearly wrong if he’s thinking about the world outside the Seattle suburbs. This is why rural broadband is a priority for the FCC. Even in the United States, vast expanses of rural areas simply don’t have access to broadband, and without broadband, the cloud is a meaningless term. Likewise, in large reaches of our cities, the broadband providers redline certain neighborhoods that they don’t think will be sufficiently profitable.
Outside the United States, the situation is even farther from the cloud. Social networking in India, where broadband availability is rare, is largely done using an SMS-based service that avoids the Internet almost entirely.
Meanwhile, back in the world of Windows, users from individuals to small businesses are coping with the requirement to upgrade from the Windows XP systems they could afford to Windows 7, which may well require a new computer they can’t afford. For that 60 percent of computer users stuck with Windows XP, a launch of Windows 8 is pointless.
In that other class of users that we write about more often here in eWEEK, the enterprise users, the struggle to move to Windows 7 also continues. Relatively few business users made the transition to Windows Vista, and that means they now have to deal with a significant upgrade hassle to move to Winodws 7.
While many business users seem to believe that the move to Windows 7 is worth doing, for many it’s affordable only if they have to replace a computer anyway. Microsoft has made the upgrade process difficult unless you buy something like PCMover from LapLink, and even with that it’s sufficiently complex that a companywide migration is non-trivial.
What needs to exist is a way to lower the pain for users, and thus the risk for Microsoft. While Windows 7 has proven to be popular, the huge volume of users that simply can’t upgrade will limit its popularity.
Unfortunately for Microsoft, you can’t just assume that people will eventually buy new computers. So instead, how about a new release that Microsoft calls Windows 7.5, that includes a realistic means of upgrading machines with Windows XP, and that will run on those older computers. While it won’t be as lucrative as getting everyone to suddenly move to Windows 8, that would never happen anyway. So why not make it easy for more people to move to Windows 7?