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The Great Windows Collapse of 2011

I've gotten a lot email this week about the over-hyped Gartner report that said, essentially, that Windows is collapsing under its own weight. My reaction to this is two-fold. Before we get to that, here's a typical story about this report from ZD's Larry Dignan, who, I'm happy to report, is still with us. I'm making a number of comments in-line here. I have to, the apparent cluelessness of some of the Gartner comments here are to obvious to ignore...

Microsoft’s Windows juggernaut is collapsing as it tries to support 20 years of applications and becomes more complicated by the minute. Meanwhile, Windows has outgrown hardware and customers are pondering skipping Vista to wait for Windows 7. If Windows is going to remain relevant it will need radical changes.

That sobering outlook comes courtesy of Gartner analysts Michael Silver and Neil MacDonald. "Windows is too monolithic," says Silver.

... This despite the modular, componentized architecture that debuted in Windows Vista, was productized as Server Core in Windows Server 2008, and will become MinWin in Windows 7 ...

MacDonald argued that Windows may need multiple kernels to support increasing demands from customers and hardware makers. "One size doesn’t fit all," says MacDonald.

... This, despite the fact that Microsoft's product bifurcation strategy with Windows Vista has been roundly criticized by pundits, analysts, and users. By my count, there are almost 20 different versions of Windows Vista from which to choose right now ... I'd also point out that Microsoft offers Windows XP Home (for ULCPCs), Windows Embedded, Windows CE, Windows Mobile, Windows Vista, and Windows Server 2008, among several other variants, to satisfy different markets; most of these products have different kernels ...

.. And while we're at it, Gartner has no issue with Apple moving the Mac OS X kernel and basic OS to the iPhone, right? Right ...

But the big issue, of course, is backwards compatibility.

Gartner argues that Microsoft should use virtualization to solve the backward compatibility issue plaguing Windows.

Fair enough. I actually agree with that bit.

OK, here are my two points about this silliness.

1. I've been saying that Microsoft needs a new OS platform for several years. One bit of evidence of this is my April 2002 article, not so coyly titled, Maybe It's Time for a New Platform. This article was written in the wake of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' US antitrust case testimony, in which he said that removing key middleware from Windows would force Microsoft to take that OS off the market. There are also references to the huge and unrelenting security issues facing XP back then, issues that people conveniently forget today in their efforts to rip Vista to shreds (despite the fact that it's never had any major security issues):

For the past decade, we've watched as Microsoft melded its legacy Windows products with NT technologies, and the latest Windows version, XP, is the ultimate combination of these two product families. XP's core is all NT, of course, since that platform provides the sophisticated low-level services needed in a modern operating system. But a lot of the fluff--the user interface work, Internet Explorer, the digital media functionality, and so on--came from outside the NT team. And it seems, sometimes, that in giving us the best of both worlds, Microsoft has stripped the soul from NT by layering it under mountains of other garbage.

I've written about the origins of NT before, and the ways in which this OS has been compromised over the years, such as when the then-buggy and unreliable IE was made a required component in order to install key server products, such as SQL Server or IIS. And with XP, it seems that the inmates have taken over the asylum in some ways, that the needs of consumers now outweigh the needs of the enterprise. NT, once the domain of businesses, developers, and other technical users, has been relegated to the barely mentioned underpinnings of a system designed to not crash while Johnny is blasting space aliens or mom is ordering groceries online. It's a sad state of affairs.

Maybe it's time for the company to walk away from Windows in the enterprise and work up a replacement that offers binary compatibility but none of the foundational problems. Remember, NT was a brand new world when it was being developed in the early 1990's, but back then, the big connectivity issue was LANMAN-based networking in small businesses, and security wasn't exactly one of the top three bullet items. Perhaps Microsoft needs to start thinking about another grass roots development project, one rooted in security, which could replace NT. It's been almost fifteen years since Dave Cutler sat down and wrote up the requirements for NT, and that product was supposed to offer MS-DOS, OS/2 and POSIX compatibility, support for RISC processors, and other technologies so far out of date today as to be almost ridiculous. You can only tack features on an existing product for so long before its time to start over from scratch.

I don't think Windows is going away any time soon, but it's possible now, more than ever, to find viable alternatives. If Microsoft is serious about embracing security, it may be time to let go of its Windows cash cow and start anew. XP might be secure enough for the home, but it's seems increasingly insufficient for the needs of the enterprise. And if the company doesn't start working on a solution now, it may find Windows collapsing under a mountain of security exploits and vulnerabilities far more damaging than any non-settling states plan.

The point here is simple: Gartner is just playing catch-up in this case. Now you can see why I never quote analysts. They're always late to the party.

2. Gartner is wrong. When I made the assertions quoted in the article above, Microsoft had just melded the insecure parts of the Windows 9x platform to underpinnings of the more secure NT platform and created Windows XP. As noted above, a lot of people conveniently forget today that XP's first year on the market was even more controversial than Vista's thanks to an unbelievable series of major security exploits. These exploits led directly to Microsoft's security initiative, the halting in development of Windows Vista/Windows Server 2008 (then called Longhorn), and the creation of Windows XP Service Pack 2, a major Windows release that Microsoft gave away to users in an unprecedented mea culpa.

Jump ahead to today and the world has changed. The Windows Vista platform, as an extension of that XP SP2 platform, is far more secure and, more important from an architectural standpoint, far more modular and componentized (read: less monolithic) than its predecessors. In fact, you can see how its becoming even more modular and componentized (and thus less monolithic) over time via technologies like image-based setup and deployment (Vista, 2006), Server Core (Windows Server 2008, 2008), and MinWin (expected Windows 7, 2010). So Windows is actually evolving over time from an architectural standpoint. And it is doing so by sacrificing backwards compatibility as little as possible. (Though, oddly, everyone is complaining about how poor a job Vista does in this regard.)

I'd also like to point out that every single one of the problems Gartner has with Windows is true of other desktop operating systems as well. Yes, Apple is more aggressive about killing off older technologies (read: Classic) but then that has also come back to bite them (read: Adobe can't make a 64-bit version of Photoshop on OS X for this very reason). One might argue--I will--that Microsoft's approach makes more sense for users and is more appropriate for a company that, incidentally, does have a user base that's over 1 billion users strong. It's easy to be aggressive when your audience is just a tiny fraction of that size.

All that said, it should be obvious for those who read this blog and this Web site, and listen to my podcast, that I feel that the future of computing is cloud computing. But again, that's not a unique problem for Windows, nor is something that's going to happen overnight. If anything, Microsoft's "Software + Services" initiative is, to me, the most logical model for moving the legacy computing world to the future. (It's like the x64 platform, when you think about it: One eye on the future, one eye on the past.) My point is that Microsoft, unlike say Apple, actually gets it when it comes to managing a humongous user base and is actively working to ensure both that its desktop OS makes sense as we move to this future and that its online services business is poised to capitalize on this change as well. I don't see anyone else doing this, and if anything Microsoft should be applauded for taking care of its users, advancing the Windows architecture in ways that make sense, and embracing a future computing model that, frankly, will one day spell the end of the products to which it owes all of its past successes.

As for Gartner and others of their ilk? Pfft. They'll collapse under the weight of their own pomposity by 2011. You read it here first.

Related: Mary Jo Foley has written a nice post about Gartner's report. She also touches on some of the modularity issues I raise here and notes too, that the Gartner report is a bunch of hype that [doesn't] provide any new insights or conclusions." Exactly. Put another way, this Gartner baloney was like an intelligence test for bloggers. No big surprise, but most of them failed miserably.

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