Microsoft, the next IBM?

After Microsoft (finally) released IE7 the other day, I felt compelled to at least download and play around with the thing. In many ways, IE7 is a completely acceptable browser – it has the now-mandatory tabs, and allows for adding custom widgets, etc. But what really is the most telling about IE7 is that it lacks any features or overall UX design that is superior to Mozilla browsers – ok, one nice little detail – the new tab button that appears next to existing tabs, which allows for adding tabs with a single click – of course, FireFox can easily be customized to support that. Worse, and I almost think this should be borderline embarrassing to Microsoft, is that it took them this long to deliver a browser that just barely keeps up with the competition – and that, I think, really is what is at the core of Microsoft’s troubles – they move soooo slowly, and even when moving at that dinosaur’s pace, they’re still not innovating. Makes me wonder if 10 years from now (or maybe less), Microsoft will have become the next IBM – a big but mostly irrelevant old-world corporation who has an increasingly smaller share of the technology market. Once browsers apps become more mature than their desktop equivalents in terms of power and sophistication, most people will be doing all their wordprocessing and photoshopping and what-not online, while desktop apps will become sort of like mainframes – catering only to professionals and corporations (as in using desktop apps is something you only do at the office), sort of like what IBM does now….

MS Vista vs Google OS

So I’m sitting here tooling around with the new features of the Google personalized homepage (last time I visited, they did not have the tab feature, for example), and finding myself not at all thinking about Google; I’m thinking about Microsoft, more specifically their forthcoming operating system, which legend has it is to be released sometime in 2007. Every time I turn around, I seem to be discovering and trying out some new feature or product released by Google, but with Microsoft, I mostly find myself reading about them, as in that it’s either been delayed, or that there is some security issue. On the one hand, I’m really comparing apples (eh, not to be confused with Apples) and oranges here – while Google is churning out one little app after another, what Microsoft is working on is the far more extensive effort of developing an operating system, of building the environment in which apps like Google’s can live. But at the same time, I have to wonder how all this would be different if the tables were turned…

Imagine for a moment that it is Google who is busy working on a new operating system while Microsoft is developing a bunch of tiny web-apps. (Btw, some of the apps Google is producing are quickly becoming less and less tiny, like the enterprise version of Gmail, which essentialy is a repackaged version of what they’ve been using internally – I am guessing we’ll be seeing more of their internal tools, such as their internal Help Desk system, also being made publicly available before too long.) My guess is that the process of implementing a Google OS would be approached very similarly to how Linux was created, with an initial seed kernel created by Linus Brin and Larry Torvalds (ha ha), followed by an open-sourcish approach, where the OS essentially is allowed to grow out in the open (as opposed to behind closed doors in Redmond) – a continaul flow of tiny improvements and design changes.

But that would only be the beginning of the differences. I can not imagine a Google OS that is not a fundamental departure from any of the major operating systems in use today. For starters, I would assume that the entire notion of a browser would vanish. In other words, once you boot up, if a network can be found, LAN, WAN, WiFi, whatever, you are online (OSX already does this to a degree.) In other words, it will be considered the default state of the operating system (akin to a UNIX terminal, which is never anything more than a network node), rather than a special state. Unfortunately, Microsoft Live notwithstanding, from my own tests of Vista, it seems that the new MS OS will continue to treat being on a network as a special state. No, I’m not talking about being on a local network (MS’s OS’s have handled that quite well since NT), I’m talking about full connectivity. So what’s the big deal about this distinction? Well, going back to what I mentioned earlier about the browser vanishing, what this means is that the operating system and what we currently think of as a standards-based browser would be completely fused. No more launching Firefox or whatever to get to Amazon or eBay or what-not. When the operating system boots up, you’d be greeted with, among other things, a big fat text field (yes, only one text field for URLs, searches, commands, everything – and I should actually credit my good friend Liz, for that idea), where you type in whatever it is you want to do or find or run or whatever. Of course, you wouldn’t want to have to type in things you do all the time, which brings us back to that personalized Google homepage. Functioning very similarly to a personalized homepage, the desktop keeps track of all your recent activities, your favorite locations, applications, etc. And better yet, as you work, all your data, and all your preferences would be stored in a central location, so that when you’re logging in to your computer, it really doesn’t matter what computer you’re logging in to – all your personalizations would be available to you as long as you are able to be online – and for those situations where you can’t get a connection, your personal machine would have lots and lots of storage, and automatically keep a synchronized local version of your data and preferences, doubling also as a continual backup system. But all these features would be emergent in a Google OS – in other words, they would not all be available right away, but would appear piecemeal, which brings us back to the core difference between the fundamental philosophies underlying how Google (and other Web 2.0 folk, like 37s or Flickr) approach design – rather than trying to get everything perfect before releasing something (which is what Microsoft is trying to do with Vista, and which we all know can never happen), the approach is to release something when it is good enough, when people can start to use it and react to it, and then keep adding to it. That’s the very evolutionary approach that I think Microsoft needs to turn to, or (and forgive me for sounding all doomsdayish here), Microsoft may not be releasing many more operating systems after Vista, because I think operating systems like we know them today will become virtually irrelevant before too long.

BarCampNYC2 epilogue – Kudos to Microsoft!

We recently wrapped up BarCamp NYC2, and even though the discussions and presentations were all great, the real hero of the event was Microsoft, who so graciously made their expansive Midtown venue available to us. Both Peter Laudati, and the management at the Microsoft New York City offices deserve a huge round of applause for allowing us to spend a minimum of time of thinking about venue logistics and virtually all our time exchanging ideas about all things new media. I am especially amazed that Microsoft allowed event participants coming in from out of town (and even some locals) to stay the night in the offices. Many of the other venues that were approached balked at this, due to legal/safety/insurance concerns.

Another of my favorite aspects of this year’s events was having a bunch of people from Google hanging out at the Microsoft offices – I am so sad that I missed the ‘Why Microsoft Sucks’ talk, which was put on my people from Microsoft who wanted to hear about all the gripes and issues people have with ‘The Evil Empire’ – I would imagine that it was both contentious and constructive.

Can’t wait for the next BarCampNYC…