Mi­crosoft’s big chal­lenge ahead

The Washington Times Daily - - Business -

Atwo-day forced va­ca­tion from the Macbook Pro I nor­mally use dur­ing work hours, ne­ces­si­tated by a logic board re­place­ment, forced me to turn in­stead to a Hewlett-packard note­book com­puter run­ning Mi­crosoft Win­dows.

The switch, plus last week’s news about Ap­ple Inc.’s new ipad (more on that next week), got me to think­ing. I’m not a stock mar­ket guru, and mine may not be the best in­vest­ment ad­vice you can find, but here goes: Short your Mi­crosoft stock, if you don’t dump it al­to­gether.

That’s a bit ex­treme, and Mi­crosoft’s par­ti­sans would be quick to note that there is plenty of life re­main­ing in the firm and its prod­ucts. In­deed, one of the pre­ferred pro­duc­tiv­ity ap­pli­ca­tions on the Ap­ple desk­top/note­book plat­form is Mi­crosoft’s ver­sion of Of­fice for the Mac. But that doesn’t elim­i­nate or ease the chal­lenges the folks in Red­mond, Wash., have ahead of them.

First, there are those in­cred­i­ble ipad sales num­bers. In an­nounc­ing the “new ipad,” as Ap­ple called it last week, the firm said it had sold more ipads in 2011 than any other sin­gle com­puter maker had sold desk­top or note­book PCS. Other an­a­lysts say Ap­ple should eas­ily sell a to­tal of 100 mil­lion ipads by the end of 2012. Since ev­ery ipad has at least a Wi-fi con­nec­tion, and of­ten a wire­less data ra­dio, that means a lot of “con­nected de­vices” out there, ones that can ac­cess cloud-based ap­pli­ca­tions and data.

That has all sorts of im­pli­ca­tions — for users, for sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tors and, again, for Mi­crosoft. In a cloud-based en­vi­ron­ment, a tablet (ipad or oth­er­wise) or a desk­top com­puter, for that mat­ter, es­sen­tially be­comes a ter­mi­nal, ac­cess­ing both data and ap­pli­ca­tions from the cloud. Fair enough, but from whom will those ap­pli­ca­tions be ob­tained? It could be Mi­crosoft, but it doesn’t have to be. Just ask Google, which is very happy to sell you its on­line pro­duc­tiv­ity soft­ware. Or talk to Or­a­cle, which now owns and dis­trib­utes Open­office, a highly com­pat­i­ble clone of Mi­crosoft Of­fice.

The bot­tom line? Mi­crosoft should em­brace ser­vices such as On­live Desk­top — and do so pronto — to keep vi­able links to cus­tomers.

Sec­ond on the list of po­ten­tial gi­ants in the Mi­crosoft for­est would be the Win­dows op­er­at­ing sys­tem, and even those vaunted ap­pli­ca­tions. Yes, the re­lease of Win­dows 8 is in the wings, and a public “beta” ver­sion is avail­able. But even Win­dows 7, it­self a vast im­prove­ment over the ill-starred Vista re­lease of a few years back, is clunky and feels dated, es­pe­cially in the face of the touch-gesture-rich op­er­at­ing sys­tem on the ipad, el­e­ments of which Ap­ple is bring­ing not only to its next desk­top OS X re­lease, Moun­tain Lion, but also to in­di­vid­ual ap­pli­ca­tions. Iron­i­cally, there are bunches of touch­sen­si­tive Win­dows-run­ning desk­tops out there; the Mi­crosoft soft­ware just isn’t as creative in ex­ploit­ing touch.

On the Web browser front, Mi­crosoft is wildly op­ti­mistic when it ad­ver­tises In­ter­net Ex­plorer 9 as the start of a great In­ter­net surf­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Un­less one wants to ride a wave of creamed corn, that is. Us­ing IE9, even on a com­puter with a rel­a­tively new and sup­pos­edly pow­er­ful quad-core AMD pro­ces­sor, is any­thing but el­e­gant or fast. Again, Mi­crosoft seems to be bliss­fully ig­no­rant of such com­pet­i­tive prod­ucts as Ap­ple’s Sa­fari, Google’s Chrome or Mozilla.org’s Fire­fox, let alone Opera Soft­ware’s epony­mous browser.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t. This colum­nist was op­posed to hege­mony when that word was ap­plied chiefly to the Soviet Union, and a vi­brant, com­pet­i­tive soft­ware/ap­pli­ca­tions mar­ket­place is in ev­ery­body’s best in­ter­est. Those of us who want to root for Mi­crosoft’s ap­pli­ca­tions — some of which are quite good — are just wait­ing for some signs of life on the part of a tech­nol­ogy ti­tan.

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