Why Microsoft doesn't need Windows anymore

Perhaps it's time to bid adieu to the venerable OS, now that Microsoft has planted itself in the cloud and app business

Why Microsoft doesn't need Windows anymore

It was a crazy idea, really: one operating system that would run on a zillion different hardware combinations. Yet Windows turned out to be the foundation of Microsoft’s incredibly dominant empire.

But there were problems with Windows from the beginning. It was mainly the responsibility of the hardware vendor to build a system that was Windows-compatible, but then there were updates, drivers, service packs, new versions … and decades later we’re still dealing with the compatibility mess InfoWorld’s Woody Leonhard reports on day after day.

I’ve always been amazed at Microsoft’s stamina. As a Microsoft marketing exec once asked me, right before Windows Vista shipped: “Do you have any idea what it looks like to test the compatibility of 600 printers in one big room?”

This is not the sort of work that advances anything. It’s whack-a-mole on a planetary scale. Sure, maintaining Windows made sense when the PC market was huge and expanding, with a giant ecosystem of third-party applications. But now?

Nobody writes new applications for Windows anymore. Microsoft tried mobile and failed, leaving its new Universal Windows Platform stillborn. Satya Nadella began his reign with “cloud first, mobile first,” but with Windows Phone dead, that leaves the cloud -- so why should Microsoft concern itself with a client operating systems at all? The cloud is Microsoft’s future.

Meanwhile, Linux has become an unstoppable force. Yes, Desktop Linux never took off -- because it tried to follow the Windows model of one operating system for every configuration. But the Android model -- the Linux kernel delivered in a highly adaptable wrapper for which the device vendor accepts responsibility -- has worked pretty well. Why not extend that to laptops and desktops? That seems to be Google’s intent with Andromeda, the rumored mash-up of Android and Chrome OS.

If a version of Office 365 that runs on Linux sounds ridiculous, consider that Microsoft has already made .Net Core, Visual Studio Code, and PowerShell available for Linux; also, Linux versions of SQL Server and Azure Service Fabric are coming soon. Microsoft’s “I heart Linux” campaign is in its second year, with the Azure cloud leading the way. Linux and the cloud are where the action is. That’s where applications are built and delivered.

It will take a long time for Windows’ 90-something percent market share to shrink drastically, but the trouble of maintaining Windows is more than it’s worth. Microsoft is in the cloud and app business. It doesn’t need Windows anymore.

Correction: This story originally stated that Windows accounts for 10 percent of Microsoft's revenue, roughly half the percentage stated in the company's FY16 Q4 earnings report. 

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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