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Forces That Move the Industry

January 16, 2014

Years ago, I was having a conversation with a senior guy at my company, and he declared that he was going to ship a certain interface on every PC in the next system release cycle.  I was arguing for another one, but his comment was that Microsoft was going to support it, and we had made the choice as a result.  I really couldn’t argue.  I, and others, got behind the new network interface (which required me to unwind a couple customer directions I’d set, it was hard), and we moved forward.

That standard was 802.11, sometimes known colloquially at Wi-Fi, and you can’t find a device — PC, phone, or tablet — that doesn’t support it.  That was the power of a Microsoft endorsement, followed by the OEMs agreeing to move it on all PC’s.  Those days seem to be gone, and one of the proof examples of that is Windows 8 and the touch interface.

Sinofsky’s Windows gambit deliberately imposed lots of short-term pain on users, as they were thrust into an unfamiliar touchscreen interface, whether they wanted one or not, or had a touchscreen or not.

And most didn’t. This translated into a considerable and unnecessary expense for enterprises. Almost two years ago, enterprises were telling Microsoft they would skip this particular crank of the Windows release cycle. Many assumed Microsoft was bluffing, and would pull back from imposing such a major, er, “disruption” upon users. Microsoft responded that it was deadly serious – and went ahead anyway.

Sinofsky’s logic was that this would brute-force an app ecosystem into existence, and so keep the PC viable as a consumer choice in a world where tablets and connected TVs and games consoles could do lots of nice and useful things. The problem was the execution: the three versions of Metro (or “Modern”) apps for Windows 8 desktop, RT and Windows Phone may have looked similar, but they had three different APIs.

Like I said, they “seem” to be gone.  Look at any phone, or tablet.  It has many PC traits, such as 802.11, USB, icon-driven interface, file systems… devices may be very different in look and feel these days, but the basics are still there.  It’s really a lot of mis-steps on the part of the hardware and software that have pushed the PC to where it is today.

But a lot of that came through somewhat of a hubris on the part of the once-dominant PC world.  Many in the industry back in the days I mentioned above used to acknowledge on one hand that the phone would eventually be the way that everyone accessed the Internet, even while on the other they decided not to get into that business in any appreciable way.  The industry mostly drove itself into the ground by assuming that the PC would always be “it” contrary to evidence.  The above Microsoft example is just one of many that I saw over the last few years where the old guard assumed that everyone was in sync, and well… we weren’t.

It’s humbling to know that you won’t always be on top, especially if you ignore evidence just because its inconvenient.  Microsoft made that assumption and has to spend much to recover from it.  Many others in the industry are in similar positions.  I have confidence in them to recover, provided they don’t make the same mistakes again.

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