What is to be done about Windows? Now that Microsoft (MSFT) has acknowledged that it's working on the successor to the generally disliked Vista (BusinessWeek.com, 1/23/08), it's time to give some serious thought to the future of the world's most widely used operating system.
My unsolicited advice to Microsoft: Think different.
It's obvious and easy to say that Windows should be more like Apple's (AAPL) Mac OS X. It's more challenging to specify just what that means and to consider both the gains users would enjoy and the pain they would suffer.
Before getting started, I want to acknowledge that the software developers charged with upgrading Windows face tough constraints compared with those who work on Apple's operating system. First, Windows runs on a vast range of PC equipment made by hundreds of different companies. Mac OS X runs on a short list of devices, all made by Apple. Second, Microsoft's key customers are corporate buyers; Apple targets individuals and pays relatively little attention to corporate info tech departments.
Third, Microsoft works hard to accommodate old programs—even some 1980s-era DOS applications—making sure they run on each new version of Windows. Apple has ruthlessly killed support for old programs and devices.
Removing Headaches from Home Networking
As Microsoft toils away on its next-generation operating system (dubbed Windows 7 and due in 2010 or so), it must, of course, go on supporting a wide variety of hardware. But it could move much closer to creating a Mac-ish Windows—even if it means splitting the software into different consumer and corporate versions, as was the case prior to Windows XP.
One goal Microsoft should adopt for the consumer version of Windows 7 is vastly simplified home networking. Home networks are proliferating, but my guess is that most people only use them to share an Internet connection. They'd probably like to share files and printers as well, but Windows often makes this ridiculously difficult, and, oddly enough, even more so in Vista than in XP.
Sharing iTunes libraries is one form of networking that is very simple on both Windows and Macs. The credit goes to an Apple technology called Bonjour, which iTunes uses to locate libraries on the network automatically. Macs use the same technology, which is supported by all major manufacturers, to find and connect to any printers on the network. Windows should use Bonjour to replace its complex and unreliable printer-sharing.
Easy Transfer: Not So Easy
Faster startup is another way Microsoft could improve the Windows experience. My iMac, which has been in service for months, is ready to use a minute after I hit the power button. Even a new and very fast Vista machine takes twice as long to boot up—and I know that performance will get much worse over time. Why? Windows lets any program load itself when the computer starts up. This trims the wait when you launch that program, but at the expense of a longer wait when you start up the computer. Microsoft should restrict the preloading of programs to those that need to be running at all times, such as antivirus software. At a minimum, Windows should give users an easy way to identify these startup programs and turn them off.
It's also hard to transfer information from an old Windows computer to a new one. When you start up a new Mac, it asks you if you want to copy data from an old computer. If you say yes, you connect the two systems, go through a simple startup routine, and all of your programs, files, and settings show up on the new Mac. A few programs won't work properly, and some may require the reentry of license information, but the process is simple.
Vista offers Windows Easy Transfer, but it moves only data and settings, not actual applications. The programs, whether MediaPlayer or Quicken, must be reinstalled one by one from the original discs or downloads. Ironically, there used to be a program, Alohabob from Apptimum, that performed an almost Mac-like transfer. Microsoft bought Apptimum in 2006—and then took Alohabob off the market.
My wish list isn't quite finished. Microsoft should make Windows more adept at supporting smartphones and other mobile devices. Because of antitrust restrictions imposed on the company in both the U.S. and the European Union, Microsoft may never achieve the sort of seamless integration that Apple delivers with iTunes and iPhones or iPods. But you shouldn't need a training course just to make podcasts on your Windows desktop sync automatically with your Windows Mobile handheld.
Haste Makes Waste
The steps I have spelled out up to this point are fairly simple. The real killer will be fixing Windows' numerous deep-seated flaws, such as the complex and fragile database called the Registry that Windows uses to store program information. The only sensible thing to do is rebuild the program from the bottom up. That's what Apple did when it created OS X in 2001.
Microsoft has attempted less ambitious reconstructions of Windows twice in the past decade with the projects that led to Windows 2000 and Vista. In both cases plans to reinvent the operating system were scaled back dramatically. Now, Microsoft seems to be accelerating the timetable of Windows 7, perhaps to give Vista-weary customers something to look forward to. That doesn't bode well for the reconstruction that Windows needs.
I, for one, would be prepared to wait a bit longer to get it.