With all that has been said recently about Windows I feel that there are some important issues that often get ignored. Much of the narrative focuses on whether people will like Windows 10 and that if they don’t it inherently means the end of Windows and Microsoft.
For 20 years I have worked as a developer with Microsoft technologies and there has always been talk of the demise of Microsoft. This much prophesied end has not happened. And it will not any time soon, regardless of what people think of Windows 10. The reasons for this confidence are simple.
1. A future secured by the past
Companies large and small around the world have spent the last 3 decades building for Windows. From monolithic client/server applications to small departmental apps built on Excel. If you have ever seen a supermarket till or cash machine reboot then you will probably have seen that it runs on a version of Windows. Many businesses are dependent on Microsoft technology to do their business.
The XP upgrade stories of the last couple of years highlight my central point. Organisations were concerned about moving from XP to another version of Windows because of the amount of software they had that ran on XP. To consider moving away from Windows altogether would be unthinkable for many of these businesses.
In order for a world without Microsoft to exist these companies would have to invest vast amounts of time, resource and money in migrating all of this software to another platform. Imagine, not just the billions of man hours required but the risk of launching all new software into mission critical situations. Many banks preferred to pay high price XP extended support fees than risk upgrading their cash machines.
2. Ushering in the new does not usher out the old
Some say that the future of software development is cross-platform, standards based and potentially in the browser. No longer will an application be wedded to a single platform such as Windows. That’s great for new software but what about the tons of existing applications?
I have worked on projects where companies try to move desktop applications to the browser. The problem is that as fast as they can migrate functionality the business is demanding new capabilities to be added to the desktop version. There is a reason why IBM still has a profitable tape business. Legacy is hard to move away from and more importantly there is often no compelling reason. That people may not “like” a version of Windows is not a compelling reason to a CFO.
To migrate an existing enterprise desktop application to mobile is just as problematic. More than that, it may be either unworkable or not sensible. Many enterprise mobile strategies involve porting elements of an existing bigger application to phones and tablets but not all. This is simply because some of the capabilities are just better on a desktop.
Then there are the skills. Developers with skills in Microsoft technologies amount to approximately 60% of the overall developer market. Many organisations have invested in the stack and the skills to build for it. Why would any pay to replace these workers or re-train them? If they did, who is then going to maintain the legacy software?
Finally it is important to consider the nature of many jobs. In technology we’re very used to dealing with mobile workers who are technically savvy (such as myself). Swap their Windows desktop for an Android tablet and they will be fine, if not happy. For large numbers of the workforce their job still involves sitting at the same desk each day using software that they have been trained to use and are familiar with.
Why incur the time and cost needed to replace their desktop with a tablet and then re-train them how to use it? It is no surprise that PC sales are starting to pick up again as companies renew their equipment. It is still the case that for many companies, especially enterprises, nothing is cheaper to procure and support than a Windows PC.
As if to re-affirm the continued relevance of Windows one of my colleagues recently wrote about how Robocom has just ported their ERP to Windows Server. And with respect to PCs: Acer and Dell have committed to continue as PC manufacturers; HP has brought out new laptops and mini PCs; and Intel has launched its new PC Broadwell chip.
3. More than just Windows
I’m not for a moment suggesting that there is no place for iPads or Android tablets or Chromebooks. Absolutely there is and for many existing and emerging use cases they are the perfect hardware solution. Neither am I saying that a large part of the future of software development is not in standards based web or on these other platforms. Whereas once a company may have been 100% Windows based this will certainly change, if it hasn’t already.
What I am suggesting is that the scale of existing investments, experience and familiarity in Windows is too great to simply be thrown out because someone does not like a particular aspect of Windows. Not in the business market, anyway. All it may do is delay the inevitable upgrade, as we saw with Windows XP.
Microsoft is also more than just Windows on the desktop. Most of the work I did over a couple of decades was on the server. Behind many iOS or Android apps is a datacentre running Windows. And Microsoft is still powerful in the embedded systems space. As a developer, the Microsoft stack and tools, specifically Visual Studio, has been consistently great and still appeals to developers old and new.
Then there are the tens of millions of Xbox users or hundreds of millions of Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) users. Being an Xbox or Outlook.com user does not preclude you from having an iPhone. Being an iOS user does not preclude you from being an Office user. With respect to Office, one could make a similar dependency argument as Windows.
4. A world of choices awaits us
Outside of businesses, consumers have become increasingly used to not using Windows, mainly through their smartphone choices. Instead of buying a home PC a consumer may purchase a Chromebook. And why not? It’s probably a sensible choice. Personally, I never understood why many people bought £2k computers in PC World just to send email and use Office.
The rapid growth in non-Windows devices is simply a reflection of the multitude of devices that people use. A PC at work, an iPhone in the pocket and an Android tablet on the sofa. When people quote that Windows now runs on 15% of devices compared to 90% a few years ago they miss the point that this is largely a reflection of the many new devices people own. Not a 75% drop in the use of Windows machines. What the technology industry needs to focus on is not one device (or platform) winning out against all others but making data and capabilities accessible across all in ways that are most appropriate to the user’s situation.
This is not a zero sum game. For Apple, Google and others to do well does not require Microsoft to die, or even do badly. Instead we are entering a world where people will use multiple devices and platforms. It is a world where developers will build for the browser but also for multiple platforms as they have always done. They will also continue to build for the PC desktop and Windows. But for many of us, perhaps most of us, Windows will still play a part in our lives and Microsoft technology, products and services will continue to underpin much of the world around us. I see no problem with this world.