The line to purchase Windows 95 was fifty deep outside the Software Etc. Microsoft was introducing their latest operating system to the masses and the masses couldn’t wait begin clicking around a desktop instead of typing cryptic DOS commands into a black screen.
With a hundred bucks in hand I was ready to retire Windows 3.1 and the icons which all looked the same. Windows 95 was such a massive upgrade from 3.1, maybe it was created by another company? Getting a PC on the interview before Windows 95 was a pain in the butt. But 95 made it painless, TCP/IP stack and all.
Windows 95 wasn’t without problems. But it was the first OS that didn’t require hours of daily babysitting just to keep it running. Instead, I spent my time working and gaming and watching Flying Toasters zoom across the screen.
The excitement of running Windows would never be this high again.
As I installed Windows 7 on my father’s new system last week, I realized the days of Windows in our home are numbered. Over the past two years, we replaced our Windows Mobile phones with iPhones. And older laptop that was unusable running Windows XP or Windows 7, was brought back to life by Ubuntu. My kids have moved most of their games off the PC and onto their iPod Touches. And in two weeks, our first iPad arrives.
Games like The Sims and Half Life kept me on Windows along with the choice of hardware. I enjoyed building my own systems and selecting the exact brand and model of every component that went into my Lian-Li case. But over the years, my time playing games has decreased, and what’s left, has migrated to consoles.
My computing needs no longer require the latest video card or CPU. A few years ago, I stopped using Microsoft Office in favor of Google Docs because of its collaboration features. After one too many corrupt .PST files, I migrated my family to Gmail and off Microsoft Outlook. I convinced my father to do the same.
The less software I install on my system, the faster and more stable it runs. Installing Windows isn’t a big deal. Windows 7 installs in less than 20 minutes on a modern system. But set aside two hours for updates, and that’s if everything goes smoothly. I wasted hours trying to install SP1 on my new system. This was frustrating, yet bearable in 1995. But it’s not acceptable in 2011.
The underlying operating system isn’t as important today as it was five or ten years ago. Most of my time is spent in my browser, Google Chrome. I don’t want to schedule updates, install drivers, defrag my drive or check for malware anymore. I just want my computer to work when I turn it on.
That’s how my iPhone works. I go weeks without rebooting it. That’s how I suspect the iPad will work. I don’t know if my next system will be a Mac. But I know it won’t be Windows. I can’t think of the last Windows program I purchased. But my family has purchased dozens of apps and music from iTunes. There’s where our money goes today. Because those products and services just work.
Somewhere along the line Microsoft realized the bulk of profits came from business contracts. Ballmer took over for Gates and pushed that notion further. I didn’t help when Ballmer admitted he doesn’t allow his children to use Apple products and went on the record saying the iPhone would never gain significant market share. This sounds like a man who is disconnected from how regular people use technology. I’m not convinced a company, no matter the size of its bank account, can focus on the enterprise while creating great consumer products. When is the last time you’ve seen anyone waiting in line to purchase a Microsoft product? Ballmer has morphed the company into another IBM.
One exception is the Xbox which had to break off from the main Microsoft campus to find success.
But, with the exception of a few pockets around campus, the excitement and wonder is gone. It’s no longer that scrappy, laser-focused company lead by the world’s most famous geek. It’s a corporate behemoth lead by a career sales guy. Gates loved software. You could hear it in his voice. Ballmer sounds like a guy who hasn’t installed a piece of software since Office 97, let alone have any idea what’s happening in social media, music or gaming. When Ballmer speaks, he does so from a defensive position. Maybe he’s speaking to the IT manager or the CEO. He’s certainly not speaking to me the way Steve Jobs does.
When I worked as a Microsoft employee over 10 years ago, I interviewed a recent graduate from a top MBA program. He told me that selling software was like selling laundry detergent. I recall wondering if he was confused and thought he was interviewing for Proctor and Gamble. He was smart but had zero passion for software. To him, it was a commodity. I was disappointed when he was hired and promoted through the division. Over the years, I’ve seen Microsoft hire this same profile over and over. The passionate software geek is now the rarity. And it makes sense. Would you rather work on a massive and predictable product like Windows, Office, or SQL Server or create something exciting at Google, Facebook or Twitter? Better yet, why not roll the dice and start something on your own?
I recall thinking that Microsoft will eventually lose it’s edge if passionless MBA’s like this man were being hired and eventually moved into management position throughout the company.
Ten years later, the edge is gone. Vista, Zune and products like the Kin have been tossed overboard into the sea of failures while Apple can’t make iPads and iPhones fast enough. Facebook and Twitter are where people spend their time today. I’ll probably keep a Windows 7 machine around if only for the Windows Media features that work with my Xbox.
But the days of babysitting Windows are over. The three computers in our home will be replaced with something else.
It’s time to move on.