I think creating a new core OS could fix a problem that Microsoft started in the 90s and better respond competitively to the MacOS and Linux. Sound impossible? Microsoft is large enough to do anything. It is hard to imagine that moving to a new code base could be any worse than the mess now being vetted in public resulting from the Vista litigation.
For comparison's sake, Apple couldn't restart the OS either until Steve Jobs came back and ordered it. Now that OS is actually based on UNIX. If anyone in the early 90s had even argued that was possible, they would have been laughed out of the segment, yet Apple did the impossible. In hindsight, that was vastly easier than managing the aging mess they were dealing with.
In reality, folks are making choices to use the MacOS in increasing numbers and, to a smaller degree, choosing to use Linux, neither of which can come as close to embracing the existing Windows base as Microsoft does.
The One-User Mistake
At the launch of Windows NT, Microsoft had two desktop OSs. I think changing this was a critical mistake. At that time, it had Windows 9x, which was for all standard users, and Windows NT, which pushed hardware harder and was designed for those who favored performance and security over backwards compatibility. There was no break between consumers and employees (people are both, of course); the break was largely based on how people used the products.
But Microsoft wanted to drive the two platforms together. The professional product became the business product and initially, (until Windows XP), the user product consumer-only. Folks like me tried to get the market to resist that change, with some success, until Windows 2000 and Windows ME made it clear that the consumer path was simply no longer a wise one for business (and with ME, probably anyone else).
Currently, Microsoft has a diverse line of Windows offerings which, rather than focusing on the differences in users, focuses on how expensive the hardware is and whether the buyer is a business or an individual (or a third-world country, or has extra money to spend, etc.). This line ramps to an Ultimate product that really doesn't tie well to either high-performance business or consumer users.
The litigation on the line decision is the first of its type I've ever heard of and points back to a serious mistake.
One other unintended effect is that the features in the business versions, but left out of all but the Ultimate consumer versions, could have vastly improved the consumer user experience and created new revenue streams for the OEMs. This potential market was virtually eliminated through Microsoft's decision to separate consumer and business lines.
Fixing the Mistake
All users are not created equal. To state the obvious, there actually are people who prefer what Apple provides in terms of an appliance-like experience and what Linux provides in terms of being able to mess with the code. We have workstation users, gamers and early adopters who care more about raw performance than running five-year-old applications and peripherals. This suggests three operating systems, none of which map well to Vista because it tries too hard to be everything to everyone.
The first of the three is a packaged product where the applications largely come preloaded or through the OEM or IT department, which fully tests them for compatibility, reliability and stability. This is closer to a blend of what is best from Apple and Windows, and what Google is working on.
The second is a platform designed for folks who want to mess with and learn about softwaer, primarily software education. It is designed to help build the next generation of software developers, a market largely served by Linux at the moment.
The third is a performance offering, co-specified by the high-end hardware makers, performance software makers (game developers/CAD-CAM developers/graphic designers), and those who buy those products. Currently, no one is really serving this group well; UNIX still thrives in parts of this opportunity.
There are actually more than three opportunities; there is an embedded opportunity and a cell phone opportunity as well that are tied to specific existing market needs, but these programs exist and actually are focused on their target markets. Even here, I think they could benefit from a sharper focus on their customers.
Wrapping Up: Three New OSs?
Yep, three. Right now, Apple is addressing part of the consumer side of users or the professional graphics designer well and that Linux seems to have captured the software hobbyist and part of the developer segment reasonably well. So we have three OSs. They are not yet perfectly aligned with the segments they target, but their growth suggests that, if nothing changes, they will reach that potential in five or 10 years when the market stabilizes.
I do believe that this misalignment is creating a significant drag on software and hardware sales, not to mention Microsoft's valuation. Were Microsoft to go back to a single OS for the standard user alone at something closer to a penetration price (say, close to what Apple currently charges for its OS), it could probably reverse this trend.
So, to the question of whether Microsoft can create a new OS: I don't think it can afford not to. This may be a revolutionary thought, but it should make the effort to map the new product(s) to what the market indicates it wants.
Will it? Short of an angel with a flaming sword coming out of the heavens and demanding a change, I'm not sure what stronger indication it needs. Apple's successes, Linux successes, the litigation, the EU fine, the lack of Vista adoption, Bill Gates' drift down the richest-man rankings, internal morale decline, and a number of other things should be more than enough for most firms to realize that what they are doing isn't working. Then again, if anyone knows any folks with wings and flaming swords, it wouldn't hurt to give them a ring, just in case.
Next time, we'll talk about why the new core OS should be something closer to a blend of Google and Apple than anything currently in the market. Until then, if you know the wings and sword person, I'd love to have, his, or her, number.