Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Microsoft shortens Longhorn

The big news on the Microsoft front last week is that Microsoft is cutting back on the scope of Longhorn, its next generation of the Windows operating system for desktops and servers. The choice was either to push out Longhorn's 2006 release date or cut back on features. The release date won.

What does this say about the size and complexity of Microsoft's operating systems?

I'll get to that in a minute. But first, let's look at what Microsoft is cutting out of Longhorn:
  • The biggest item to get the ax is the new file system, WinFS. WinFS was supposed to run on top of the Windows NT file system (NTFS), allowing users to more easily store and locate data. WinFS will now be introduced later in an upgrade to Longhorn.

  • The new Avalon presentation system is being "decoupled" from Longhorn, allowing it to be introduced with Longhorn and also as an enhancement to existing versions of Windows. This will make it easier for software developers to write new versions of their applications that can run on both Longhorn and older versions of Windows.

  • The new Indigo communications subsystem is also being split off from Longhorn, meaning that it might also be introduced separately. Indigo is Microsoft's next generation communications layer for all web services and communications features such as instant messaging, voice-messaging, video messaging, collaboration and content distribution.
The result of these cutbacks is that Longhorn is turning into more of an evolution of Windows, instead of a revolutionary jump in OS architecture. It also means that application software developers will be able to more easily make the transition to Longhorn.

Mary Jo Foley, of Microsoft Watch, has the best high level analysis on the subject. Read her latest article and follow the links to her earlier articles. Foley also links to Longhorn evangelist Robert Scoble, who has more observations on Microsoft's thinking.

Backing up a few steps, however, it's hard to avoid the impression that Microsoft's operating systems continue to get more massive and more bloated. Furthermore, as Microsoft adds new features, backward compatibility to thousands of third party hardware devices and software applications is becoming more and more a burden.

Clayton Christensen, in The Innovator's Dilemma, points out that market leaders ultimately overshoot the needs of the majority of their customers, opening themselves to competition from new technologies at the low end of the market. Such "disruptive innovations," as he calls them, do not provide the extensive features and functions of the market leader. But at the low end of the market, they are good enough. And they are much cheaper and simpler to implement or use. At first, a market leader ignores the new technology, because it does not threaten the market leader in its core business. But as the new technology improves in capabilities, it begins to move up market, eventually taking major market share from the leader. Christensen points out dozens of cases where this has happened, in industries as diverse as disk drive manufacturing, to retailing, to excavation equipment.

Do the majority of home computer users (think of Aunt Millie) really need WinFS? Do the majority of businesses (think of Uncle Joe's machine shop) really need Avalon or Indigo?

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to speculate on what other operating system or technology represents a threat to Microsoft, especially for the majority of users at the low end of the market.

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Microsoft .NET losing mind-share?
Microsoft Software Assurance: no bang for big bucks
Microsoft helps the business case .... for Linux

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