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Microsoft's operating system (OS) development times are too long and they deliver limited innovation; their OSs provide an inconsistent experience between platforms, with significant compatibility issues; and other vendors are out-innovating Microsoft . That gives enterprises unpredictable releases with limited value, management costs that are too high, and new releases that break too many apps and take too long to test and adopt. With end users bringing their own software solutions into the office...well, it's just a heck of a sad story for Microsoft.
Those arguments probably don't surprise you. (See Should Microsoft Throw Away Vista? and Vista Never Had Its Moment in 2007.) But the Gartner analysts offered several more points to show how Windows is in a whole new world of hurt. High on the list is Windows' complexity, its lack of modularity, its hardware footprint (particularly on low-end PCs) and the increasing movement to Web-based and other OS-agnostic applications.
A few of their arguments:
Mature markets have limited growth in terms of PC hardware. The computer hardware business is expected to grow only 2 percent to 8 percent between 2005 and 2011. The opportunities for PCs are higher in emerging markets, where the growth rate is 16 percent to 24 percent for PC hardware—but they're more price-sensitive so vendors and enterprises have to keep the price down. That means less memory and storage, for example—and Vista is not appropriate for that sort of memory model. Linux is the preferred OS on low-end PCs including "one laptop per child" and certainly Microsoft doesn't want to see that happen. "All these things are in opposition to what we've seen with people expanding PC use year after year," MacDonald said.
Version compatibility is relevant in more than software development terms. For example, they said, iPhone's version of OS X is closer to the desktop version of the Mac OS than Windows Mobile is to Vista.
Servers are evolving in multiple and sometimes conflicting directions. Some industry trends imply that we need to scale up computing, such as single instance data stores and partitioning. Others are driving it down, such as grid and cloud computing, server farms and cluster computing. The result, they believe, is that enterprises will want to customize the OS based on the need.
Microsoft has taken some first steps in this regard, they pointed out; for example, Windows Server 2008 can be preconfigured based on roles. "That's a step in the right direction, but it's still fairly superficial," said Silver. What's needed is a radical change in architecture that goes beyond packaging DLLs, he added.
The move to server-agnostic applications is still in its infancy but will soon have a major effect on enterprise computing. The legacy applications won't go away, even if the exciting stuff is being done on Internet-based apps, they said. But it won't stay that way. Today, 70 percent to 80 percent of corporate applications require Windows to run, but the Gartner analysts expect a tipping point in 2011, when the majority of these applications will be OS-agnostic, such as Web applications. "Sometime in the middle of the next decade, Windows will be playing a much less important role on the desktop," MacDonald said.
Virtualization changes our view of what operating systems are. Virtualization starts offering levels of abstraction between the OS and the hardware, pointed out the analysts. The hypervisor is taking on some of the role of what the OS did. "Is this the time to redraw some of these lines?" asked Silver. "For us in IT, the interjection of these new layers helps introduce fluidity, and lets us better manage IT."
And Yet, Gartner Says: Don’t Skip Vista
All of these points don’t necessarily mean that your enterprise should skip Windows Vista entirely. Although half the Gartner clients they surveyed don't plan to begin Vista migration until the second half of 2008 (the same clients who represent 2.5 million PCs and, in 2006, confidently said they'd get going with Vista in the second half of 2007 or the beginning of 2008). "We don't recommend skipping Vista," said MacDonald. They do, however, suggest that enterprises adopt Vista by attrition (such as when buying new computers that have it preloaded). That's not because of Vista's virtues but, said MacDonald, because Windows 7 is scheduled to be released in 2009 or 2010, and you don't want to wait until 2012 for deployment.
The analysts recommended that in the short term, enterprises assess the range of Windows OS types and instances in their infrastructure and determine their company's own tipping point for OS-agnostic applications. In the next year, they said, IT managers should evaluate where various virtualization technologies and OS-agnostic apps can provide early advantages.
Should you consider other operating systems? (It's not an unusual idea.)
MacDonald and Silver believe you should at least calculate the cost of switching to another environment. Microsoft won't change its message unless enterprises make it clear they'll adopt technologies and strategies that serve its users best, they said. Do proceed with Windows Vista deployments as you've planned, though, as the earliest Microsoft could deliver against the analysts' vision (if they wanted to) would be 2010.
What does Microsoft think of all this? MacDonald and Silver said they've talked with Steve Ballmer about their analysis, but 95% of Microsoft revenue comes from OEM shipments. Ballmer "has billions at risk," Silver said. "I believe Microsoft will pursue a path of slow, incremental change because that's safest for their stockholders—unless you vote with your dollars."