Redmond's Latest Woe: OS Irrelevance

There's an old joke about the classic 19th century novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: It's a book everyone wishes they'd read but nobody actually wants to read. It's heavy going, in other words, but well worth it in the end.

OS Roundup: Is Microsoft losing the war on two fronts? Enterprises continue to opt for XP over Vista and Windows 7, and Internet Explorer is now lame and leaking share.

Microsoft must be wishing that enterprises felt the same way about its latest grand oeuvre: Windows 7. It seems to be a work that right now almost nobody wants to implement, and nobody wishes they already had.

That's the upshot of an informal survey of 12 CIOs carried out by Silicon.com recently. Just one of the 12 said he would consider rolling it out before 2011 at the earliest. The rest are happy to stick with what they have — which in many cases is Microsoft's aging but effective Windows XP.

When you think how most software houses — and Microsoft is certainly no exception to this — delight in releasing new versions of their software on a regular basis to boost their revenue streams, it's quite amazing that so many companies have thumbed their noses at Redmond and are sticking with an operating system that will shortly be two versions behind the current one. The lack of enthusiasm for change is so acute that Microsoft has been forced to announce that when 7 is released, PC buyers will still be able to downgrade to XP for a period of up to a staggering 18 months, after previously hinting that the period would be limited to six months. (Companies on volume licenses or Software Assurance covering Windows should be able to downgrade to XP for even longer periods if they feel like it.)

Most companies may move on from XP only when support for the OS is finally scrapped, but even when that happens some companies are still not be convinced about the benefits of moving on. Take Talk Talk Group, a U.K.-based telecom and Internet company: "XP will continue to do the job, with or without support from Microsoft," says Steve Clarke, the company's systems and operations director.

The lack of interest in 7 doesn't necessarily mean the operating system is a dog. Far from it: The release candidate has been received with almost universal enthusiasm as Vista without the bloat. But moving to a new OS costs lots of wonga — never an attractive proposition in a downturn — as well as a significant amount of time spent preparing and testing. Another reason many enterprises are failing to move to the latest and greatest desktop OSes may be that the growing prevalence of applications accessed using a browser means the underlying OS is becoming increasingly insignificant.

That might explain why Microsoft has recently launched its rather comical (and that's not meant in a good way) Windows Internet Explorer 8 (IE8): Get the Facts campaign. On reflection, "comical" doesn't go far enough. The campaign is simply preposterous, presenting a transparently one-sided argument and leaving its audience wondering why Microsoft is treating it like it's filled with imbeciles. It's taking liberties of a truly Norton Folgate proportion.

The company is seeking to persuade computer users to stick with IE8 rather than switch to one of the other browsers that have become popular in the past year or two, such as Firefox, Chrome, Safari or even Opera. Here, Microsoft has a problem. IE8 is designed only for Windows while the others are all multi-platform to a greater or lesser extent. IE 8 is thus just a proxy war for Windows.

To be fair to Microsoft, IE8 is not a particularly bad browser (although let's wait for all the inevitable security howlers to be revealed before we make too many pronouncements). The flipside, however, is that IE8 is not nearly as good as Microsoft makes it out to be, and certainly not any better than Firefox, Safari or Chrome — life's too short to have an opinion about Opera, in my book. And when it comes to JavaScript engines in particular, the latest indications are that IE8's is slower than the others, not exactly ideal for running web-based apps.

So Microsoft has got not just one but two rather major problems right now. On the enterprise desktop OS side few businesses see a compelling need to move from XP to Vista, let alone the unproven 7. And on the web apps side, its browser is nothing to shout about. It's not fast, it's single platform, and it has been losing market share for quite a while.

Whether it's the enterprise desktop OS or the web browser that turns out to be the key platform of the future isn't yet clear. But in either case — as things stand — Microsoft loses.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Jun 23, 2009
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