For a while now I’ve been tempted to write a fictional blog post purporting to have been written in 2050-or-thereabouts, essentially along the lines of “Hey, anybody remember Microsoft?” The company that for most of my lifetime has just been there has, in the last 5 years, suddenly become rather wobbly – despite still seeming quite healthy in financial terms.
The announcement of Valve’s SteamOS and associated gubbins added a whole new element to Microsoft’s woes. Now, a lot of this is working on the assumption that SteamOS, the Steam Controller and Steam Machines will be actually good. If they’re not, then the debate is a bit moot.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the key market areas where Microsoft have historically ruled.
General school computers, at least here in the UK, have always been Windows boxes. Sure, the art and design and film departments might have Macs, but the general workhorses that most students get to use are Windows.
There’s a new drive in computer education, though, exemplified through the Raspberry Pi. Here’s a credit card sized, ARM-powered circuit board you can buy for about £30 and stick any OS on it that you want (and which works). It was created for educational purposes though has also turned into something of an unexpected commercial hit. The point of it is tinkering. You can see how it works, you can add bits to it, experiment, change the OS easily, program, interface machines with it…
It’s been pointed out that we have a generation of computer-trained people who can only use Word, Excel and a web browser. That’s like describing a trained car mechanic as somebody who knows how to use the steering wheel and pedals.
I’m not suggesting the Pi is going to replace Windows boxes in schools. However, if the new attitude of programmers-as-rock-stars and the emphasis on the importance of understanding the workings of a computer continues to take hold, Microsoft will have a bit of a problem because that’s fundamentally going in the opposite direction to where they’ve taken Windows 8.
Business & government
This is the big one, really. Even once all else falls away, there’ll still be this. They’re simply too entrenched.
Except…there are proper, decent alternatives to Office now. Open source options like LibreOffice, or cloud-based stuff like Google Docs. They all still work alongside Office. Fundamentally, there’s no longer a definite need to be using Microsoft Office products. For smaller, agiler businesses and departments that’s got to be tempting.
Apparently there are still at least 500 million machines running Windows XP, even though all support and security updates will be ceasing in 2014. This is in large part due to the prohibitive cost of keeping hardware and software up-to-date for businesses and governments. This could prove to be Microsoft’s Achilles’ heel, over the long term, as people shift to simpler, cheaper systems for general, everyday work. Even something like Chromebooks would suffice for generic office work.
This used to be a big thing, but is it anymore? Apple have taken a massive bite out of this entire area by inventing the smartphone and tablet. When consumers want to check emails, browse the web, look at photos, listen to music or watch a movie they don’t go to their desktop anymore, they go to their mobile device. Apple and Android combined have destroyed Microsoft’s assumed influence here, especially as Windows Phone and Windows 8 simply haven’t taken hold as intended.
Even once you look at laptops, the desirable laptops these days are Apple-based. The Air is a beautiful, beautiful computer. Again, Chromebooks come in here – cheap, fast, simple. You can’t do much with them, but you can do enough, especially if they keep the prices down. Why bother with a complicated OS?
Theoretically Windows 8’s Start/Metro UI should have cornered this whole space, but the general confusion around Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro, plus the odd touch/mouse/desktop collision means that iOS and Android still are the operating systems of choice for general media consumption.
What about really custom systems? Intense database stuff, servers, infrastructure setups, medical equipment etc? Well, these all run in to the same obsolescence problems mentioned earlier. Increasingly, custom, bespoke stuff seems to turn to Linux – an operating system apparently better suited to specialist customisation and performance.
Which brings us back round to gaming. This is an odd one, in that Microsoft have a very successful game business – the Xbox. They’ve actually gone out of their way to try to kill gaming on Windows PCs for the last decade, presumably wanting to push everybody into the console space. During this period there’s been the usual noise of people talking about how PC gaming is dead, etc etc.
Thing is, PC gaming isn’t dead. It’s healthier now than it ever has been. Almost all of that gaming takes place on Microsoft PC operating systems, yet Microsoft have failed to get any kind of traction themselves. Games for Windows was a terrible mess and their history of porting key titles such as Halo to PC has been unpredictable at best.
Microsoft had an opportunity to command and control gaming both in the console space, with the Xbox, and on PC with Windows. Instead, they ignored Windows, the biggest install base platform in the world, and allowed another company – Valve – to do the work instead.
Hence, Steam. 50 million players and customers around the world. It’s turned Valve into an absurdly profitable company. Gaming is thriving, both indie and AAA. It’s all on Windows, but rather than that being a key part of PC gaming, it’s become entirely incidental.
Without Microsoft even noticing, Valve have started courting other platforms, such as Mac and Linux. And now, with that SteamOS announcement, they’re launching their own Linux-based operating system. Everything about SteamOS is a subversive threat to Microsoft.
At launch it’ll have about 300 Linux-native games, apparently. Mostly indies. But the entire rest of the Steam catalogue will be able to stream from a desktop Windows PC or Apple Mac direct to the SteamOS box. So at first most gamers will use it as a streaming box, in order to play their games on other screens around the house.
Suddenly there’s 50 million gamers on a Linux-based operating system. Windows will still have the bigger install base, but most of those will still be corporate/government/non-gamers. The gamers will be on SteamOS. At which point, why develop your game for Windows, especially if SteamOS provides superior performance and porting ease? More games come out for SteamOS/Linux. Progressively Windows becomes less relevant as a gaming platform.
That doesn’t really leave Microsoft with much pie. Sure, these are all tiny attacks on a giant entity and market leader. But, hey, the Death Star wasn’t protected against a small snub fighter.
It won’t be quick or particularly obvious, but if Microsoft don’t do something to turn things around and become a more desirable tech company, they’re going to start seeing a gradual erosion and internal rot. Getting rid of Ballmer was certainly a good first step – hopefully the company will now get some real vision.
Note that I don’t actually want to see Microsoft or Windows collapse and die. I rather like Windows 7. Competition is good – there’s no point simply replacing Microsoft’s dominance of the PC gaming platform with dominance from Valve.