Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) is in a bind.
Windows Vista has sold 140 million copies, but it's such a resource hog with unreliable hardware drivers that users keep asking Redmond to extend the support for Windows XP. Many corporations refuse to upgrade their server farms and cubicle-bound desktops at all. It's not often that 140 million copies of a software package that costs hundreds of dollars can be called a disappointment, but this one seems to fit that bill.
Vowing to release a new operating system every three years, the company now has about 20 months until the supposed release date for Windows 7. The tight-lipped mastodon has just started to let a trickle of feature details slip out, and I have to say that the early glimpses have not been very impressive.
The big news!
You know how the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone and iPod Touch have these cool screens where you drag stuff around with your fingertips? Yeah, Microsoft will do that, too. Great, huh?
OK, so this version will do a bit more. Drag five fingers across the screen in a painting program, and you could leave five colorful glowworms in their wake. Play 10-finger chords on an on-screen piano, and resize photos by dragging the corners apart with two fingers. Wow, that's neato!
Yeah, so I lied. That's not really an update over the iPhone at all, save for the larger screens you'd see on a Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) desktop screen or a Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) laptop. The iPhone screen can do all of these tricks already, and I'm not really sure what the big innovation is here. At least Microsoft seems to be imitating an established leader in user interface design this time.
I understand that it's early in the game, but if the best Microsoft's army of engineers can come up with is a simple update to the touchscreen technology you see on nearly every ATM today, then the company is in trouble. There may not be much of a reason for anybody to migrate to Windows Vista 360, Windows You, or whatever they'll call this one.
All quiet on the Pacific Northwestern front
More troubling than the lack of major feature upgrades is the insistence on sticking to Vista's bloated core with similar minimum hardware requirements. Most people tend to use their computers for simple tasks like Web browsing, typing up the occasional text document, and maybe organizing their digital photos. This audience isn't all that interested in a bucketload of memory-sucking extras and a desktop environment that requires high-end graphics processors. Keep it simple, silly.
The exceptions include graphic designers (who have been Mac users for years), hardcore gamers (who are doing just fine with a Sony (NYSE: SNE ) PlayStation 3 or Microsoft's own Xbox 360), and early adopters who just like to play with new technology. Fine, go for the niche audiences if you must. But at least make the bloat optional rather than turned on by default.
There's an alternative core technology by the name of MinWin deep inside Redmond's shops, and it's supposed to take the fatness out of the Vista experience. But management is saying that the next Windows will not be a dramatic departure from Vista, and the underpinnings will remain the same. That's a huge mistake. Don't these guys listen to user input anymore?
What's a Fool to do?
I don't mind that Microsoft uses ideas from Apple. I get flashbacks to how Xerox (NYSE: XRX ) PARC planted the seed for the whole idea of graphical user environments to begin with. Just make sure to incorporate the right ideas.
The slick and sassy iPhone system works just fine with a puny 620 MHz chip (single-core!), and a similarly slimmed-down Windows version could be very successful. Maybe it would be best to build on top of the mobile-ready Windows CE platform and give Vista the boot entirely, as Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) let the Pentium 4 architecture become a footnote in computer-chip history. Some of the right decisions are uncomfortable at first, but it's time to throw this baby out with the bathwater.
C'mon, Steve Ballmer! You must have something else up your sleeve. Just slap the cards on the table already, and give your investors some peace of mind.