Winners, Losers and Game-Changers

23Aug12

The phrase “game-changer” was added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary this year, along with “mashup,” bucket list,” and a bunch of others that have gotten lots of media attention. This got me to thinking about the game changes in the computer industry and how disruptive technology changes the playing field for both tech producers and consumers.

The game-changer of the moment is Windows 8, which was finalized for release last week and made available to select customers. Windows 8 is the centerpiece of Microsoft’s effort to compete in the tablet computer market against Apple’s hugely-successful iPad. The tech blogs have been fairly buzzing about Windows 8 for a while now, but I’d like to look back in time to compare the current situation with a game-changer from over 20 years ago.

Windows 8 home screen. Will this radical redesign of Windows be enough to keep Microsoft on top?

Lots of Personal Computer (PC) users won’t remember it, but there was a time when Microsoft was known mostly as the creator of DOS (Disk Operating System), the operating system (OS) for “IBM-compatible” PCs. When it came to the world of computer applications, the programs regular folks used for everyday computing tasks, Microsoft wasn’t the leader it is today.

Computer users of a certain age will likely remember the “winners” in PC software applications from the DOS era. For many years, the leaders were:

Word Processing: WordPerfect
Spreadsheet: Lotus 1-2-3
Database: dBase
Email, calendaring: Lotus Notes
Presentations: Harvard Graphics
Programming Language Tools: Borland (various products)

Microsoft could sell a DOS license for many if not most of the PC computers sold (DOS was also sold by IBM at the time), but when it came time for users to buy the applications for that PC, Microsoft’s products were usually the second choice (anyone remember Multiplan, Microsoft’s DOS spreadsheet program?).

Microsoft was losing the competition with these other application companies, so they made a decision to change the game. They had been working on a graphical user interface for DOS called Windows to compete with Apple’s Macintosh system. In 1990, this graphical environment had matured and extended the capabilities of DOS to the point where Windows seemed to most users to be an operating system unto itself. Microsoft also developed new versions of its application software that took advantage of the new graphical and memory management features that Windows offered.

Their competitors were caught off-guard, now faced with the task of rewriting all their well-regarded flagship products to run as native Windows applications. They never caught up—Microsoft’s ability to develop the new operating system and user applications in tandem meant that their application suite, Microsoft Office, was always just enough ahead of the competition to gain majority market share and eventually push most of its competitors to niche status.

In the meantime, IBM had gotten out of the personal computer operating system business, meaning that Microsoft could sell an OS license and often a full Office application suite for every PC sold. The profits were enormous and the Windows PC ecosystem of hardware and software dominated the personal computing world.

During this heyday for Microsoft, Apple went through a period of near death, failing to update its increasingly-dated (from a technological standpoint) “classic” OS. Things changed in 1996 with Apple’s acquisition of NeXT Computing and its leader Steve Jobs (who co-founded Apple years earlier). OS development resumed at Apple, transforming the NeXT operating system into what eventually became Apple’s OSX. This brought Apple back “into the game” with its rival Microsoft, but it wasn’t enough to seriously alter the marketplace.

Apple changed the game in 2007 with the introduction of iOS, its touch-centric graphical operating system geared towards mobile computing, first used on the iPhone and later on the iPad. Just as Microsoft had with Windows, the new technology disrupted the market completely, changing the way users worked with their computers (and expected them to work) and the way application software was created and marketed. Suddenly it was Microsoft that was caught off guard.

Windows 8, along with the tablet hardware to run it on, is Microsoft’s attempt to catch up with Apple and maintain its market position as computing becomes an increasingly mobile phenomenon. With this move, though, Microsoft seems to be hedging its bets by creating a new OS that is intended to work on desktop systems, tablets and phones. So far, the reviews are decidedly mixed.

Despite some of the dire predictions by web pundits about the Windows 8 public launch in October, Microsoft isn’t going to disappear anytime soon if the initial response to Windows 8 isn’t overwhelmingly positive. They have a huge installed base of (mostly satisfied) Windows 7 users out there, with a vast ecosystem of applications that people (myself included) need in order to get their everyday work done.

What’s clear, though, is that the game has changed, and it isn’t just Microsoft, Apple and other companies like Google who are involved. Computer users are also (often unwilling) participants in this struggle, having to re-learn once-familiar technologies and sometimes acting as unpaid beta testers for unproven software. The winners and losers of this latest game-change are yet to be determined, but I’m sure we’ll all get a bit roughed up as the battle ensues.

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One Response to “Winners, Losers and Game-Changers”

  1. 1 Dean Severson

    Just a note on the release preview. I have had Win 8 on an old laptop for a couple weeks now and I am really liking it. Admittedly, it is designed with the touch-screen in mind, but if you google the Windows Key shortcuts and how to hit the ‘hot-corners’ with your mouse you will easily learn to navigate Win 8. (Can’t wait for the Surface!)


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