The Browser vs. the Windows 7 Desktop

At my company, one essential ingredient is required in every analysts' report that we write. It's called the "so what" factor. That is: Who cares, and why should they care?

I sit with my colleagues around a conference table, lean back with my hands behind my head and dare my colleagues to make me care. (Of course, they extend me the same courtesy.)

It's starting to feel that way with Windows 7. Prettier? Yes. Less irritating than Windows Vista? Sure. But ... so what?

The danger that Microsoft faces is not that Windows 7 won't succeed. Like all Microsoft operating systems, even Vista, it'll be an enormous business success-generating perhaps $18 billion in revenue and $15 billion in profits in its first full year--simply because when most people buy a new computer, the only choice they have is the latest version of Windows.

Lots of users and businesses may stick with--gasp!--the tried-and-true Windows XP. Although past its good-until date, there can't be many serious bugs left in the product's kernel after eight years of fixes, and Microsoft will provide security patches for another five years. Gartner recommends that organizations get off of XP by 2012, but even people who take that advice may very well skip Windows 7. At a minimum, the uptake may be incremental, as organizations replace their old PCs.

One of the major reasons that Microsoft pursued Netscape in the late 1990s with such vigor--thus bringing itself into conflict with the U.S. Department of Justice--was the fear that the browser would become the new desktop, evolving into a computing platform that might outshine Windows.

Today, that fear is fact. Many Internet users rely far less on their desktops than on their browsers. They use their browsers to tweet, read and update Facebook, use e-mail and browse YouTube--all of which can, or will, be done quite happily on free OSes like Ubuntu, Android or Moblin.

This isn't merely a consumer phenomenon. Even corporate developers have shifted largely to Internet technology. In doing so they've abandoned the code-intensive "client-server" development of the 1990s, with its requirement to write and maintain custom code for both the front- and back-ends. Today's developers would much rather build apps that live on free Web servers, use free or cheap open source scripting and programming tools, and are accessed by a free browser.

The great irony is that Microsoft itself brought about--more certainly and more quickly than Netscape ever could have--the browser-as-desktop.

To ensure Netscape's defeat, Microsoft came up with its own browser and, to ensure Microsoft's market-share dominance, not only gave its browser away but forced PC manufacturers to do so as well.

For business IT, Microsoft solved the worst problem of client-server computing: client proliferation and management. The company built into every PC a universal client that's free, flexible, network savvy and, best of all, automatically updated and patched by Microsoft at no charge. In other words, it created a monster competitor to its own core business.

In Redmond, the shift is creating great concern. After the repeatedly over-promised and eventually under-delivered Vista, the next version of Windows must restore the OS to the center.

That will be difficult. The OS is now a follower, at best keeping up with current trends. Windows 7 has a few interesting features that are of some importance to IT, but most users are likely to regard them as little more than nice touches that help them with what they do today, not enable them to do something more tomorrow. It's the browser that will take them there.

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.