How Microsoft is underprepared for next gen computers?
Microsoft’s Windows is still shipped on 97 per cent of all new PCs. Thanks to the emergence of new classes of portable, internet-connected devices, a potentially disruptive sea-change is now under way in the fastest-growing areas of personal computing and Windows is not exactly in the driver seat on this ground.
As a PC operating system, it turned out that the world did not need, or want, Linux. The ubiquity of Windows guaranteed that other software developers would write their programs to run on it, creating an effective barrier to entry for others trying to break into the market.
That market dynamic has also helped Microsoft to hold its ground so far on netbooks, the new class of small-scale machines that have been the sole bright spot in an otherwise shrinking PC market. While early netbooks came with Linux and were designed to act mainly as simple internet devices, they have since been recast as scaled-down versions of the familiar, software-heavy laptop.
Yet this victory has come at a cost, and has exposed a flaw in Microsoft’s development plans. With most netbooks incapable of running the Windows Vista code, it was forced to use the older Windows XP operating system. And with prices far lower than for standard laptops, Microsoft has already seen an erosion in the average price it gets for Windows.
A second phase of the netbook wars is now looming. Google’s Linux-based Chrome OS, announced this month and planned for the second half of next year, is designed to carry through on the original promise of netbooks: to let users do all their work on the web through a browser. The web is thus a platform for applications and the operating system becomes less relevant.
Other operating systems designed for the web are also in the works. The Linux and Intel open-source project, known as Moblin, will be available in a range of machines before the end of the year.
The backers of software platforms like these see netbooks as the thin end of the wedge. Getting a foothold on small laptops is the first step to expanding into a wider range of internet devices – including the emerging class of tablet computers and so-called mobile internet devices (MIDs) that many in the industry hope will eventually create a new personal computing market, between today’s PCs and smartphones. Maemo, Nokia’s Linux-based operating system for portable tablet computers, is also pitched at this market.
That convergence promises to bring another dimension to the emerging software platform war.
Smartphones have seen a wave of software innovation, with the emergence over the past two years of a number of new purpose-built platforms: Google’s Android, Palm’s Web OS and a version of Apple’s OSX for the iPhone.
Microsoft is suffering because some of its licensees are looking to do more business with Android.
Designed for the power-constrained world of mobiles, these smartphone operating systems could start to invade a bigger piece of the personal computing world – particularly if the low-power Arm processors on which they run move up into larger, netbook-style devices.
Even in this shifting world, though, the power of Windows could be a deciding factor. If it released a version of the new Windows 7 to run on Arm-based processors, Microsoft could still be well-positioned to ride the wave of new devices.
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