Where Microsoft lost its way

John C. Dvorak wrote an analysis of how Microsoft lost its way with Windows 8 this week.

All in all it sounds reasonable to me. His recollection of DOS and some DOS version 8 confused me at first, but that was what the DOS buried in Windows ME was called. But mentioning it is appropriate, because it shows how DOS faded from center stage to being barely visible in the end, to the point where it was difficult to dig it out, and that it took 15 years for it to happen. He’s completely right, that if Microsoft had pulled the plug on DOS in 1985, Windows would have failed.

Windows was neither usable nor commercially successful until version 3.0 in 1990, and grew incrementally better with Windows 3.1 in 1992, and DOS lived on behind the scenes until XP supplanted Windows ME in late 2001. Meanwhile, the user interface continually underwent further refinements. In one way or another, Windows was continually chasing Apple, which may be why Microsoft is trying its best to become a gadget maker like Apple now.

It’s noteworthy that while it was chasing Apple, the old Microsoft hedged its bets in the meantime by developing for the Mac, and that was where Office came from. Word and Excel were dominant on the Mac long before they were on the PC.

There was a time when Microsoft would develop for any platform. They started by developing an interpreter for the Basic programming language for anything with a microprocessor, lots of programming language compilers for CP/M, a line of software for the Apple II, an operating system and a line of software for the IBM PC, and they even licensed Unix from AT&T so they could produce a version of Unix they called Xenix. While Apple was developing the Mac, Microsoft had one and developed a lot of applications for it, including what became Word and Excel. Microsoft was a software company, and their only prejudices were market share and a dislike for the MOS 6502 CPU used by most inexpensive 8-bit computers of the day. They grudgingly produced a little bit of 6502 code for the Apple II, but their CP/M compatibility product for the Apple II grew out of their dislike for the 6502. Their CP/M package allowed them to sell their CP/M software to Apple II users–even though it required them to resell a rival company’s operating system. They also designed the MSX line of home computers and gave the specifications away so they could sell a line of software for those. MSX never caught on in the States, though it did well abroad.

Then they whittled back in the mid 1980s, avoiding the Atari ST and Amiga due to a grudge with two particular hardware makers. Commodore got the best of Microsoft in a business deal over Microsoft Basic, and Atari picked Digital Research’s GEM over Microsoft’s Windows as a user interface for the ST. I don’t know how seriously Atari considered Windows–porting it to the Motorola 68K architecture would have taken some work and Digital Research had a head start–but Microsoft never considered developing for the ST after that. Microsoft produced a half-hearted Basic interpreter for the Amiga, but delivered it late and it wasn’t very good. Not many people used it for anything.

The reasons for not developing on Apple and Google tablets and phones don’t follow that parallel. Microsoft needs to be porting anything noteworthy it writes for Windows 8 to Android and Apple IOS, and frankly, it ought to port any successful Xbox title that Microsoft writes over to Sony and Nintendo consoles as well. The next big thing for Microsoft could happen on one of those non-Microsoft platforms, kind of by accident, the way Office did.

Instead, Microsoft is trying to emulate the Apple way, which is trendy. But Microsoft doesn’t have the star power to pull that off. Going back to their old approach, from before they ruled the world, is more likely to succeed. And they’re virtually guaranteed to not look like fools while doing it, because they’d just be doing what they did once before.

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