Microsoft Windows’ Biggest Problem

Paul Thurrott — a long-time Microsoft booster — has written a devastating analysis of Windows for WindowsITPro. After reviewing Windows’ recent history, he concludes:

Windows is in trouble because people simply don’t care about it anymore. It’s ambivalence.

[pullquote](T)he opposite of love is not hate – it’s apathy. It’s not giving a damn. ~ Leo Buscaglia[/pullquote]

The definition of ambivalence is: “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something.”

Actually, the word that came to my mind was “apathy.”

The definition of apathy is: “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.”

Whether it’s ambivalence or apathy, you can be certain that it has to be concerning to Microsoft:

And make no mistake, this is a serious issue. With businesses keeping Windows on life support and users spacing out their PC purchases for so long that there might never in fact be another PC purchase, Windows is in trouble. This ambivalence is worse for the platform than outright defeat. In its current state, Windows can limp along for years to come. And that’s just long enough for the platform to wither and effectively disappear.

Windows and its applications were comfortable, familiar, and popular

Windows represented the volume market for personal computing. The resulting applications would be purchased, downloaded, and used by real users((Author’s Note: What exactly is Paul trying to imply here by using the word “real users?)), and the programming standards that developed over time—toolbar and button types, property sheets, and other ways of doing things—permeated across popular applications, creating a standard look and feel.

Apathy background conceptAgreed.

Windows and its applications were comfortable, familiar, and popular. And then they weren’t.

Agreed and agreed.

Desktops have stagnated

Thurrott contends that Desktop apps have stagnated and that the primary cause was the long-delayed Longhorn operating system. I’ve included his argument in an extensive footnote, here ((It didn’t start with tablets, sorry. And it didn’t start with Mac OS X. It started with Longhorn, the project that outgoing Microsoft CEO has (correctly) pinpointed as the biggest mistake of his tenure. Longhorn was the point at which Microsoft’s ambitions exceeded its abilities. And it derailed Windows, and the company, for the better part of a decade.
Longhorn addressed the wrong problem for the era, and it did so with the backing of a set of all-new, .NET-based APIs that morphed throughout the years-long development of the platform. By the time Microsoft spat out Windows Vista, it was as top-heavy and unwieldy as the organization that created it. Worse, it fulfilled precious little of the original promise of the platform.
While this was happening, web apps, phones, and then tablets were becoming first viable and then truly powerful. While this was happening, developers stayed away from Microsoft’s new APIs in droves and created absolutely zero major new applications with that technology. While this was happening, desktop applications such as Office, Photoshop, and iTunes lumbered along, more out of inertia than anything else.)).

I would contend that it was the desktop computers themselves — not the desktop apps — that stagnated. The desktop computer over-served the vast majority of its users, making it difficult for software makers to introduce new, exciting software. As Thurrott, himself, points out:

(Of) the top 10 most frequently installed Windows desktop applications, two—iTunes and Chrome—are essentially rival platforms of their own that aim to steal away Windows users, while the rest are silly little utilities that fix problems with Windows 8.

Having 8 of one’s top 10 apps be utilities sounds like over-serving to me. In any case, even if Thurrott and I took different roads, we both reached the same destination — that Windows is suffering from ambivalence or apathy.

Windows is on the back burner

Ballot paper with the don’t care box ticked

I…spoke to a friend who works for a major technology company that has a big presence in the Windows world….After rising to fame and fortune on the back of…Windows applications…this firm has seen its user base splinter, with many on Macs and many more on iPhones, iPads, and Android devices.

(A)ccording to my friend, there is absolutely zero call for creating (Windows) apps. And their flagship Windows products are hard to maintain and update because of the lack of interest and excitement around Win32.

This song is being sung in companies around the world, where users are moving to Android and iOS mobile apps and to web apps. Apps tailored to these experiences are now at the forefront, and Windows, when it’s considered at all, is on the back burner.

The End Of The Windows Monopoly

At this point in his analysis, Thurrott neglects to mention that Windows is marooned on notebook and desktop machines, while smartphones and tablets have passed PCs by. Charles Arthur, of the Guardian, sums it up thus (emphasis added):

This moment, where tablets outsell PCs, also marks another watershed: the end of the Windows monopoly on computing. It used to be that if you wanted to get something done, you would end up using Windows to do it. But as smartphone sales have exploded (they passed those of PCs three years ago), followed by tablets, the need to press the “Start” button has stopped. Ask yourself – what was the last consumer app whose popularity depended on being available for Windows?


Thurrott is hardly the first analyst to reach the conclusion that Windows has become irrelevant.

The risk to MSFT from Chromebooks and tablets is not sales numbers, it’s that many will see how little they need Windows now. And Office. ~ James Kendrick (@jkendrick)

[pullquote]Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike. ~ J. K. Rowling[/pullquote]

In fact, he may be one of the very last analysts to have reached this conclusion. But it does not make that conclusion any less correct. For all their riches, Microsoft is in trouble. Their competitors know it, Microsoft knows if, and now, even their most die-hard supporters know it. But I don’t think that the general public has come around yet.

Ironically, Bill Gates, may have summed up Microsoft’s current dilemma best:

In this business, by the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s too late to save yourself.

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

31 thoughts on “Microsoft Windows’ Biggest Problem”

    1. Bingo. I don’t believe that it is an exaggeration to claim that the overwhelming majority of all PCs ever sold sit under desks and do nothing but run email clients and edit spreadsheets and run some POS/Project management software. And they were purchased in bulk by a relative handful of corporate IT types. Microsoft’s ham fisted marketing, in my opinion, reflects a near delusional belief that every Windows license ever sold was bough by a distinct individual who picked Windows over everything else. Why else would Microsoft and it’s supporters continue to run with the idea that the world is just holding it’s breath for Microsoft to give these billions of imaginary customers the Microsoft solution they apparently desperately want?

      1. Well said, Shadow; you’ve captured the core of Microsoft’s strategy! They’ve coasted for many years via a dominant market share with corporate desktops. Minimal innovation was provided by them during this era.

        Long ago it was called FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Corporate IT departments were frightened as they locked into Windows and Office. Apple was unable to make a dent in the overall corporate market share; they could only carve out a niche spot within creative departments.

        Your comments reveal the basic difference between Apple and Microsoft: Apple has kept a near-fanatical focus on the customer and the user experience. Hardware and software were (and are) tightly integrated.

        Microsoft could never understand these concepts. As a result, they are no longer in a leadership role in the tech world. The vast scope of their near-monopoly will keep them entrenched on many corporate desktops, but the decline is ongoing. Hard to imagine a breakthru innovation from Microsoft to reverse this downturn . . .

          1. You’re quite welcome, Shadow 🙂

            I’m a newbie here, impressed with your posting on Mac forums. Probably see you again here. Seems likely I’ll also see you over at The Loop, and maybe at BGR.

            Always a pleasure to meet a fellow Mac person!
            Be well . . .

    2. Let me first say, even though I don’t share your admiration of Apple, I do love your writing, your wit, and your posts.
      Now that that’s out of the way…I wholeheartedly agree. We put up with it not out of love or admiration, but because it’s enabling. MS won, for better or worse. IMO it was for better, despite themselves. It gave us a standard, a bad one, but a standard nonetheless. It was proprietary, but open. Anyone could build anything, hardware or software on the platform. Unimpeded. That enabled unparalleled innovation that no one company can do.

      1. Hey, thanks for the compliment. As I think you know, commenting is an interesting writing form: How to summarize and further a discussion.

        Here’s a plug: Why don’t writers of original articles come back a few days later and do the same: summarize what readers had to say, what’s worthwhile, and update their article? Save the time it takes to respond one by one to commenters; give the article legs.

    3. Did anyone…ever care about Microsoft? ~ stefnagel

      In his article, Paul Thurrott argues over and over again that customers are not antithetical to Microsoft. I’m not so sure. However, I am sure that it doesn’t matter. Whether people are leaving Windows because they want to or leaving it for practical reasons — they’re leaving it.

      And that’s all that really matters.

      1. They’re leaving the PC, or not buying as many. If I’m not mistaken, Macbooks and iMac sales are stagnant too. WIntel is declining. Unless the PC declines are going to Linux, then they are going to tablets and smartphones. As the PC goes, so does Windows.

        1. There’s a difference though. (And I know that you’re not an Apple uber alles guy).

          When I see a client with staff that is apathetic to their tools (normally Windows), I consider it weakness. When I see a client treating their tools as a competitive advantage (even if they’re Windows 98-based) and the staff doesn’t hesitate to use their tools/seldom has to explain that their computer is slow/not working/anything derogatory, I consider them dangerous.

          It’s not a matter of leaving the PC or the desktop platforms that I would worry about. Be afraid of stale or me-too thinking being representative of other attributes of an organization.

          1. I see these tools a lot like I see other tools of intellectual endeavor. Let’s use math as an example. A creative user of math solves the broadest set of problems, as easily as possible. This is why calculus superseded algebra, for instance. Put in other terms… calculus reduces to algebra under certain circumstances. “Most people” are more comfortable with algebra, and can solve a great deal of problems. For simple problems, it’s actually preferred. It’s calculus, however, that has solved the BIG problems. If all we have is algebra, we never understand why the planets move the way they do. Intentionally limiting users to algebra limits their ability to use their tools and their creativity. It boxes them in. That’s why I harp on openness as much as I do. “You don’t have to, but it’s there” kind of thing.

            Please forgive the abstract analogy. Einstein put it much better “Make it as simple as possible, but not too simple”.

          2. PS- Aren’t you glad they approved the apps? That I should even have the ability to ask such a cynical question should concern you. 😉

      2. I find Thurrott uselessly predictable; every article includes three components: 1. Thurrott positioning himself as the omniscient narrator of the Microsoft story. Whatever happens, Thurrott knew it first. 2. Thurrott denying that anything Apple had any significant effect on Microsoft. This refers back to point 1; Thurrott needs to cover for his decades of Apple bashing. 3. Microsoft suffering from errors that, again, Thurrott predicted and having nothing to do with Apple, but errors it can survive seemingly, disinterest in this article.

        In fact, Microsoft is suffering from real life negative emotions that the balkanization of computing set free. You can’t say you hate your drill instructor until he’s no longer DI. Consumer computing, I think, always found PCs mystifying and inefficient, even when Windows viruses weren’t actively destroying data and disk.

        Here’s a Thurrott tell: “The company’s engineers have little to no interest in Windows per se, and are gravitating to MacBook Pros.” What expert in tech does not know that MacBooks can run Windows better than PCs—except a heartfelt fibber like Thurrott?

        1. Harsh but essentially true. Thurrot was the worst of a bad bunch of Microsoft sycophants that simply would not, under the vast majority of circumstances, criticise Microsoft unless that criticism was couched in language that made it clear that it was not ultimately a problem with Microsoft, or that if it was a problem with Microsoft, it was the fault of others.

  1. “I would contend that it was the desktop computers themselves — not the desktop apps — that stagnated.”

    Or both.

    1. I think the sequence was 1) desktop over serve; 2) software had nowhere to go.

      Desktops followed Moore’s law. They kept becoming more and more powerful. In the beginning, they weren’t powerful enough for anyone. We all wanted and needed to upgrade as soon as possible. Eventually, they became more than powerful enough for all but elite users. While the elite users kept demanding more, most users simply didn’t need new computers – what they had already served their purposes.

      Under those circumstances, software makers were only making software for the ever shrinking elite. No one else need much more than what they already had.

      1. That, and most of todays tablet users never needed a desktop anyway. Not for what they are using their tablets for. They had no choice but to buy a PC for email, web, etc. And that’s a gross overkill.

      2. I agree that desktop computers stagnated as they over served. But software did have somewhere to go: to the browser. Even before smartphones and tablets took off, more and more development resources were going to browser based applications. To this day, a lot of companies develop for the desktop browser first. If other form factors never did take off, traditional desktop software (i.e. licensed software installed locally) would have still declined.

        Of course, Microsoft’s problem is that most browser based apps are OS independent and that Windows is not the best platform for running them.

        1. “software did have somewhere to go: to the browser.”

          How are Microsoft’s developers supposed to charge for software on the browser? How is Microsoft supposed to make money from browser operating systems when they’re being given away for free by Google, and now, Apple?

          1. Many, and I suspect most, developers make their money writing software for an employer, not by selling directly to end users. Think of all the developers working for Google, Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Saleforce, et al. Even consider mobile developers. Apple talks about the billions they have paid to developers, but none of that includes what companies have paid iOS developers for free and enterprise apps.

            Browser based applications allowed the first exodus of developers away from traditional Windows programming. However, browser based apps still ran and continue to be run on desktop computers. That is software was and still is developed for desktops. There is more to the story of the downfall of Microsoft than just the maturation of the desktop computer.

          2. For the most part, apps are far more numerous and far more powerful than web based solutions. This holds true for both consumers and businesses.

  2. Just wanted to add a general note that you all have got a great discussion going. Very gratifying to see the Insiders taking the topic and running with it!

  3. Will you be bitching about Apple down the road here? Now that they are dominating the electronic world? Microsoft started a revolution and many might not be happy with their tactics in doing so it open the door to everyone else so show some respect!

    1. Microsoft deserves a tremendous amount of respect for what they have accomplished. They’ve literally changed the face of the world.

      However, ignoring facts and refusing to analyze those facts is not showing respect, it’s just ignoring reality.

    1. I linked to Paul’s article in the first sentence of my opening paragraph. I also included his argument in the footnotes.

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