PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE – WHY “PLAYING IT SAFE” WITH WINDOWS MAY NOT BE SAFE

It should be fitting, for those who know me, that my first real post is a not-particularly favorable screed about Microsoft.

I just read a great article over at PC World by Esther Schindler of CIO.com here about the Gartner Group’s analysis of Windows Vista in the marketplace.

Much like our wildly unpopular Federal Administration, Microsoft has seemingly gotten out of the business of serving it’s constituency and gotten into the business of serving it’s friends. And much like our Congress, our computing culture seems have gotten comfortable with being repeatedly abused, and trained to not respond in a meaningful way out of fear of the “untested” alternatives. Of course, many people have tested these alternatives and are quite enjoying the experience. But like most abusive relationships, it can take a long time to see that there is a better world out there waiting for you if you can make it out the door.

I’m being wildly unfair in the name of humor, but I think it’s hard to argue that Microsoft’s biggest threat is not against Apple, Google’s web application model, or the various distributions of Linux that are very quickly seeping into the marketplace, but itself, and by extension it’s own customers’ perception of it’s vision and future.

I was an avid Windows user for most of my adult life. In Apple’s OS9 and earlier days, I stuck by Windows because despite it’s flaws it allowed me freedom over my own machine. Sure Apple computers were almost indestructibly stable… sure they provided a simple and elegant experience. But Mac’s were, and to a reasonable extent, still are a walled garden (and they didn’t run “Wing Commander,” but that is a post for another day).

If I wanted a specific piece of hardware or software that Steve Jobs didn’t stamp with his approval, then chances were I wouldn’t get to use it unless I was a programming genius (which excludes most but not all of us) and had the gumption to put a lot of money and development hours in a relatively small market for niche professionals and designers. At least in the Windows realm, proprietary as they may be, Microsoft created standards like DirectX or ActiveX that software and hardware developers could use to not only communicate with Windows components, but innovate in new ways not originally intended or foreseen.

But that was an era much different than the one we live in today. Today, the most rapid growth and innovation on the Windows platform has nothing to do with the platform itself, but the tools used to exploit it’s security models. Arguably the largest industry that stands atop the Windows landscape is the security industry which only exists in large part due to fundamental design flaws of the Windows code structure and security policy. All software has bugs, and all bugs can be exploited, but nowhere else in the computing world can those bugs allow people to take over the entire operating system with such ease and aplumb.

With entrants like Google, Apple’s revolutionary leap into the Unix world with OSX and the introduction of a marvelous windowing interface, the rise of Web 2.0 applications and open-source / open-standard development models, today’s tech successes have to operate in short development cycles. Most development companies seem to gravitate towards a 1-2 year visionary evolution release, with 6-month interim release cycles where features and enhancements are introduced or refined, with incremental bug fixes and security patches delivered along the way.

Obviously this is a broad stroke, and some projects are released at the pace in which the complexity of their vision allows, but remember this…

Vista took 6+ years after Windows XP to be released.

Ask yourself, those of you who use Vista. What have you gained? Sure, the interface looks moderately nicer than XP. But while it is different enough to cause confusion when migrating and cost great sums to do business-wide hardware upgrading to accommodate the swollen computing footprint, it is not different enough to offer an improved productivity experience in the way that OSX does or the recently released distributions of Linux do (in most cases at no cost due to consumer-targeted versions of Linux being free).

The major security gripes from XP have not been addressed so much as they have been modified. Instead of rethinking the security architecture in a new way, or like Mac & Linux evolving the known-to-work security models of yore over the course of these rapid development models, Microsoft went with the nagging mother approach.

“Are you sure you want to use this program? …are you sure you’re sure? Too bad! You are not authorized to do so. Go to your room!”

All kidding aside, the real issue at the core of all this is relevance. It is not enough that Vista looks like a shiny new toy. In an era where political, social, and business methods and ideas are being transformed by grassroots organization, a rethinking of wasteful industrial models, and the organic growth towards an open-exchange of ideas and compassionate cooperation with each other in the face of hard times, it becomes a difficult proposition to claim that you as a meme are still relevant when your new product release seems to try and tighten the vice around your dependence to them the vendor and penalizes you the ever more penny-wise consumer for using untrusted media and peripherals. Untrusted by whom, exactly? Ask your Administrator.

From Microsoft’s Genuine Activation, to kernel level Digital Rights Management, Microsoft has extended themselves beyond protecting their profits and curbing piracy to becoming a “Big Brother” shepherding you towards multimedia and peripherals that seek only to benefit their long term goals.

Except that they don’t. Vista has been very poorly received and Microsoft is now scrambling to figure out how to rectify the situation. Sadly, their response has been to extend the life of Windows XP and to build hype around how much better Internet Explorer 8 will be, as will their yet-to-be-officially-announced next version of Windows not due until some amorphous date somewhere in the 2009-12 timeframe…. I don’t think I’m breaking news when I tell you this.

Ironically, the Gartner Group recommends that businesses “not skip” Windows Vista so that they aren’t waiting several years for Microsoft to come up with a better solution.

But since my focus is on helping small businesses and non-profits navigate a constantly evolving and convolving landscape to their best advantage, I think the lesson to draw from all of this is that 2008 is a year where we as a culture, be it business, political, or social culture, have become distrustful of the devil we know for very understandable reasons.

No operating system is perfect, but there are options. There is a real, healthy world outside of this abusive relationship if you want it. Be it the reliable elegance and simplicity of the OSX platform, or the dynamic, flexible, and democratic Linux universe, or even if one’s best option ends up being the familiar consistency of the Windows family, those who assess their options will be in a better position to make informed decisions, improve their chances of success and maximize their productivity over the long haul.

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