Microsoft yesterday made some big new product announcements, with updates to Windows, and a new range of Surface devices. At the moment I’m involved in a project looking at providing core technology refresh in big corporate organisations, and I struggled to see anything that would have sent a message that Windows is a business-focused, cost effective platform for cheap commodity user computing, which is what this client wants.

Sure, 3D and AR are a future, but the reason why I keep getting told we need traditional PCs around the place is for drudge work- data processing, spreadsheets and so on. Stuff, I’m told, that can’t be done on a smartphone. (And stuff I think will probably be automated away in the coming years).

This for me marks the existential crisis for Windows. On the one hand the reason why it’s still used is primarily for old-fashioned PC work. That’s why businesses still buy them (and increasingly households don’t, or not as often). On the other hand Microsoft seems to want to send a clear message that the Windows platform is young, hip, creative and trendy. Having worked in the hip, creative and trendy worlds of media and marketing I can be certain that that, unless Apple spectacularly implodes, is very unlikely to happen.

What’s the alternative? Compare the paths of two legacy platforms: Digital Equipment and IBM mainframe.

With the rise of the PC in the 80s (of course for which IBM was partly responsible) mini and mainframe computing started its decline as the new form “did an Innovator’s Dilemma” started to become the server platform of choice with Windows (and later Linux) servers.

IBM appeared to knuckle down realising that it’s customers were happy (and locked into) good enough. 30 years on and mainframe is still a solid business for Big Blue. (To be fair the rest of their business has been through a world of painful transformation).

Digital, on the other hand, tried to make products that looked like PCs, based on their traditional products. Eventual they were acquired by Compaq who, in turn, were subsumed into HP.

I fear that sticking a mouse onto a DEC workstation was like sticking a touchscreen onto Windows. Something its core users neither needed not wanted. And ultimately led to a business without customers.

Microsoft has a self perception as a perpetual disruptive innovator, but for the 21 years since Windows 95 has mostly been on an impressive incremental improvement path, mainly because that’s what its customers actually wanted to buy (and buy it they have). But the PC now is a legacy platform. Windows needs to start being run, and monetised, as such.

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